The Long Version
Mara And Dann: An Adventure and The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog By Doris Lessing
Mara And Dann: An Adventure
New York: HarperCollins, 1999, 407 pp., $14.00, paperback
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog
New York: HarperCollins, 2006, 288 pp., $24.95, hardcover
By Doris Lessing
Reviewed by Ann Snitow
Human beings are divided; that's what Doris Lessing, genius of stripped-down narrative, has come, once again, to tell us. They are capable of building wonderful, complex worlds and feeling deeply for each other; they are also capable of mean-spirited betrayal and infantile destruction. They invent amazing things, then forget what they know. They fight fiercely to survive, then foul the nest they've made for themselves. But while this drama of self-division is going on, constantly repeating, a larger story is unfolding, which most of the time they barely notice: the ice ages come and go; seas become deserts, deserts become seas. Just when a great city seems secure and enters its maturity, the water comes and invades its foundations. Cities sink and take with them human memory. Bits and pieces are left to puzzle - and befuddle - future generations.
In this return to science fiction with a pair of novels, Mara and Dann and The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, Lessing tells the story of two children fleeing through a terrifying world of starvation, war, and cultural collapse. Mara and Dann, brother and sister, fugitives from a dying tribe, travel north through an Africa that is drying up (thousands of years from now is has become "Ifrik") but that is marked with messages from a more developed past in stone and metal murals, indestructible fabrics, and in some few crumbling objects--are they books? If so, Mara and Dann and those they meet can no longer decipher what those earlier human beings had to say. Too many links have been lost, and everything needs to be done over again. Mara and Dann ask the elders whom they encounter, "Are guns [which no longer shoot] artifacts from several hundred years ago?" Yes, is the tentative answer. Or maybe several thousands. There's constant slippage between two zeroes and three. The ancients seem to have tried to keep a record of the richness of a civilization, "Yerrup,"Â now under the ice, by building replicas--of Rome? London? The replicas themselves are now under water, their roofs glimmering far beneath as Mara and Dann row over them.
The subtitle of the first book, Mara and Dann, is "An Adventure."Â When they start their journey, Mara is only seven and Dann four. They are raw human material, tested to the limit of endurance. They learn to be wary, to eat and drink almost nothing, to survive on the barest thread of the possibility that somewhere, North, what was once desert (the Sahara) is green again, flowing with water, and filling up with new cities. They travel in terror of wild water dragons and killer spiders the size of five year olds; they flee from the malice of rival peoples and desperate fellow-sufferers who would willingly kill them for a mouthful of bread. And as they go, they try to imagine Ifrik, this large landmass over which they are crawling, which is being swallowed from south to north by drought. They draw maps in the dust with their fingers, tracing their slow progress. As they grow up, they are kidnapped and forced to become soldiers, slaves, baby breeders, but they keep escaping, always northward.
The reader can't help wondering, northward to what? The journey has become so compulsive, so central to who these young people have becom that it seems impossible that they could ever arrive anywhere that would soothe their restless, anxious hearts--or the reader's long-suspended expectations. At the end of the first volume, they arrive: "We couldn't get any more north than this. This is north of north, the northern edge of the Ifrik North Lands."Â In her introduction, Lessing says that the story of the siblings questing across a continent is ancient, and insofar as this is an old tale, its design is complete when Mara and Dann discover they are princess and prince. A crumbling palace awaits them, and a crumbling dynasty looks to them for renewal.
But this is no ending after all. They must find a way to live, and by now they are so restless that human history itself is an inadequate frame for what they crave. Time becomes these novels' central character. What makes Mara and Dann heroes in these strange and at times compelling books is not that they could be king and queen but rather that they glimpse a larger story. At the beginning of volume two, Dann is trying to travel in a little boat still farther north, right up to the ice cap that was once Europe. Lessing places him on a cliff, deafened by the crashing of ice into the Middle Sea (the Mediterranean), which is filling up before him like an empty bowl. He witnesses the cascading of boulders, as if a single human being could experience geological time. And this is what Lessing is trying to do here--to depict eons, so that we can see the big design in which we all live.
It's by turns a wonderful, odd, and maddening project. The problem with huge expanses of time as subject is the poor fit between the freezing and thawing of glaciers and the scope of individual lives. Of course, that is exactly Lessing's point. She wants us to play her character Martha Quest's game from the Children of Violence novels (1952 - 1969): first to imagine our bedroom, then the street outside, then the city, then the country, then the globe, then the galaxy, then the universe. This game of expanding the context, changing the frame, stretching the human imagination to orient itself to large realities has always been at the heart of Lessing's work. In the Martha Quest stories, a housewife in London can't get her roof fixed, and the impossibility of finding good workers becomes a sign of a decaying civilization. Similarly, Mara's problems in finding clothes to wear or food to eat become signs of the loss of weaving and the coming of deserts.
The first novel is told mostly from Mara's point of view, but lest we linger inside the scale of one human life, by volume two, Mara is dead and Dann is left as a reluctant leader of armies, admired for his sufferings, as well as for his aristocratic birth, elegant tall body, and essential disconnection from the day-to-day lives of others. He is marked by a tragic illness, which began in an early childhood trauma: a bad man tortured him, and a second man, who looked exactly like the first, rescued him. Some basic mystery lies wrapped in this nightmare memory about the twinned nature of good and evil, the elusive mixtures of these elements in every human life, and the likelihood of finding the twins inside oneself. Wherever Mara and Dann travel they are shadowed by an implacable, mythic enemy, Kulick, a cruel man who menaced them as children and who represents the tireless malevolence that is one part of every human being. Why can we not escape him? Dann's confrontation with evil--in both Kulick and himself--is a fixed pattern, while Lessing is always moving us beyond this struggle to something else, some larger adventure of consciousness. Dann interests her because he has glimpsed the ultimate intractibility of human limitation: we are too ignorant, or soft, or desperate, or unimaginative, or in denial to do much to save ourselves from either ourselves or from the ravages of nature and time. Dann is not only restless but weary of our compulsive repetition--bored: "Here we go again, and more of the long, long ago, the here-we-go-again, the around-and-around-and-around-we-go..." Though Lessing seems driven to tell this circular tale--hundreds of pages of travail, fear, struggle, and loss--sometimes, in the books' repetitions, one feels that she is twiddling her thumbs, that like her traumatized, exhausted hero, she can't be bothered. The foil for Dann's angst is his faithful and adoring follower, Griot, the practical man who organizes armies, food, places to sleep, and civic order--all in the name of Dann, the charismatic leader who can no longer care about life's endless housekeeping. Griot cannot have the large-time, cyclical thoughts of his mentor. He is able to do what needs doing because, like the child Dann once was, he cannot see beyond his next step in the sand. In contrast, by the end of the story, Dann lives, like Lessing, in the constant company of long thoughts.
Touchingly, eventually, Griot lives up to his name and becomes a storyteller, one who can narrate the feelings everyone shares. But Dann, that restless and unsatisfied spirit, gets the last word. Though Mara's daughter tells him they have finally ended "happily ever after"Â and though Griot points out that together they have developed a stable and nurturant polity--Tundra, which provides for everyone--there are rumors from the south of starving hoards who might invade. Griot said to Dann,
"You see, sir, I can't believe they would be so stupid. Tundra is very prosperous, we provide stability for all the Northlands and to the south and east too. We grow so much food there are always surpluses for sale. We are an example to everyone. So there would be no advantage in attacking us. I mean, it would be too stupid. I am pretty sure there is no need to lose sleep over it."The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog ends with these words of Dann's, and with the obvious fact that there will be a war soon. Lessing's verdict is in: how stupid we are. She has been saying this for a long time. The genre of science fiction has freed her to say it from the top of a cliff, literally watching time crunch up civilizations even while they busily collude in crunching up themselves. She keeps returning to this mode because of the opportunity it gives her to pull way back and speak schematically, from on high, about how stupid, stupid, stupid it all is.
"Well, yes, Griot, it would certainly be stupid. I agree with you there."Â
Who can argue? Are these wars really necessary? Isn't it obvious that they only make everything worse? Is it inevitable that we human beings squander our resources until nothing is left but nonbiodegradable flotsam? Can't we act out of the good side of ourselves, since we are often quite capable of distinguishing this good from Dann's dark Other, who does stupid, destructive things?
Another question: can great novels be written out of this cosmic boredom with human beings? Possibly. But these twin novels aren't the proof. Critics have noted the simple outlines of these stories, like old legends, but some of this simplicity can come off as rattling stage machinery or creaking plot. And, at another level, some of this simplicity arises from Lessing's ennui. She is impatient with us humans, which makes her race along, indicating with a wave of her hand whole catalogues of human misery and disorder.
What finally does work in these books is just this pace, this relentlessness; Lessing convinces us through her perseverance as she narrates the excess of human striving and failing, dragging us through terrible suffering and fear the length of a continent. She earns the feeling of exhaustion with which she leaves us: everything made--houses, languages, civilizations--must be made again. Her art lies in her vivid depiction of the endless ups and downs of human stories, and the partial failure of her art lies in the weary simplicity of this message.
The good Lessing, who is a Jeremiah prophesying the inevitable results of human craziness, is the twin of the bad Lessing, who is above all irritated, delighted to throw up her hands and declaim: here comes the ice, and boy, do you deserve it. These two Lessings have been around for a long time. (These books' constant recourse to doubling can almost stand as an analogue for them.) I've always been one of those who greatly values them both -- crabby as they can be about stupid feminists, stupid leftists, stupid young people, etc., etc.
A lot of Lessing's readers peeled off after she turned away from realist depictions of the present danger and toward long views and schematic projections of possible futures. But she never really stopped being that realist; she is able at any moment to lay out a scene among people that is as detailed and carefully observed as ever. Her Jane Somers novels about old age in London (The Diaries of Jane Somers, 1983, 1984), her disgusted depiction of young radicals in The Good Terrorist (1985) and of the arrogant ignorance of sixties radicals in The Sweetest Dream (2001), and her startling portrait of late middle-aged sexuality in Love, Again (1995) all show that that side of her enterprise, to describe social texture, remains green. Her two volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997) are wonderfully detailed accounts of living in history--as she has always chosen to do.
But throughout these years she has also been writing science fiction, trying to leap out of the conventional historical frame. In her science fiction books, the social, the particularity of things, is merely sketched. Powerful novelist that she is, in these novels subtlety of observation is precisely beside the point. Certainly this is true in the Mara and Dann novels, where history has become a small squeak, a few lines copied on a wall:
...truths to be self evidentIn 1959 Lessing wrote, "Nobody knows anything and they pretend they do."Â She has always sought a larger reality than human beings care to contemplate, hence she has always meditated on questions of scale. When Lessing was a child, her father told her, as they looked up together at the stars above Africa, that if humans blow up this world, there are plenty more. The cynicism and grandeur of his observation are both still with her. The disjecta membra of human history have fascinated her endlessly, while at the same time the more she observes the human situation the less she grants authority to any account of ourselves we humans craft from our experience. Tales, songs -- all very nice. But ice breaks all that apart. Dann discovers a huge pile of skulls, too many to count. They are victims from hundreds of years ago, or perhaps from the recent terrible drought. "Why is it happening, Mara?" he asks. "Why don't we understand anything? No one knows why anything happens."
Un vieux faun de terre cuite...
...be in England...
Rose, thou art sick...
...all the oceans...
...rise from the dead to say the sun is shining...
...into a summer's day...
Western wind, when...
Lessing is certain that nothing is more self-deluded than human certainty--and it is in that divided state of a grand knowledge undercut by the principle of doubt that she leaves us.
For those who love feminist science fiction, someone important to our speculative pleasures has departed -- shockingly early: Octavia Butler. (WRB Volume 23, Number 3, May/June, 2006) Like Lessing, she was capable of making whole worlds collapse, but she also took human beings over the edge of themselves into new forms of life. One wishes that, like Lessing -- now 87 and writing away passionately, provocatively --Butler had lived long enough to take her particular sense of the dissolving boundaries of things into world after world. All who have followed her in imagination -- and those who will in future-- have sustained a great loss.
Octavia Butler 1947 -- 2006
Ann Snitow is a professor of literature and gender studies at Eugene Lang College, The New School. A feminist activist since 1969, she now does most of her political work in East and Central Europe. The anthology, The Feminist Memoir Project, which she edited with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, is soon to be reissued by Rutgers University Press.