Diego Garcia review: prize-winning novel takes us from the Indian Ocean to a grotty Scottish pub

Diego Garcia is the largest of the Chagos Islands - Reuters
Diego Garcia is the largest of the Chagos Islands - Reuters

Diego Garcia is a fiction; so are “Diego Garcia” and Diego Garcia. The first is this collaborative novel by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, which has just won the Goldsmiths Prize; the second is the pseudonymous man whom its protagonists briefly meet; and the third is the island in the Indian Ocean where that character’s mother was born, a girl deported by Britain, like the entire populace, in 1973. They were replaced with the American military, and a base at which torture has long been alleged. Its name is “Camp Justice”, which makes you think.

Damaris and Oliver Pablo are 6,000 miles away. Friends and flatmates in Edinburgh, a British-Mauritian and a Scot, they trudge from library to grotty pubs, with little money and prospects to match. But one day they meet a man of Chagossian descent – Diego Garcia being the largest of the Chagos Islands – and this “Diego” (a moniker, like a guerrilla’s) tells the duo of his people’s plight. He just as quickly vanishes, and leaves them researching that history. They start to view what happened to the Chagossians as one symptom of a structural disease: “Total surveillance, the precariat, Charles Ponzi… Bitcoin, gold, hunger, debt.”

Diego Garcia foregrounds the collective. It’s even composed in the first-person plural: “we” is the standard form, until “he” does this or “she” does that. Soobramanien and Williams want to show what the downtrodden can learn from each other, but they’re realists, and they don’t devise a cathartic end; Damaris and Oliver Pablo will never find Diego again, just as the Chagossians are in limbo for real. Instead, the exchange of knowledge is cast as the closest thing to accessible power. The Foreign Office would agree. In a secret 1968 letter, it admitted that the idea on which the deportations were built, that the Chagossians were transient residents, was a “fiction” of its own. If your government acts like your author, it can rewrite your life at will.

Diego Garcia is published by Fitzcarraldo at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books