The Story of General Dann and Maria's Daughter and the Snow Dog Doris Lessing
The unwieldy, apparently naive title of Doris Lessing's latest novel gives quite a lot of clues as to what follows. This is a meandering, episodic book, peopled by disconnected characters, told in pared-down, at times, almost perfunctory prose.
I think we have to assume that this is deliberate: the apparently uncrafted quality of the novel is crafted to mimic an oral storytelling tradition, reminiscent of ancient epics in which characters had more role than psychology. A sequel to Mara and Dann, published in 1999, the novel is set in a future when melting ice covers the continent now known as Yerrup and waters are creeping up along the marshy coasts of Ifrik.
Dann, whose odyssey through Africa was the story of the earlier book, is living a settled life as a princely figurehead, holding out the promise of stability and security to the refugees and the straggling survivors of wars. But he is acutely aware of his inadequacy in the face of the role the community requires of him.Broken by the death of his sister, Mara, he is haunted by glimpses of a global civilisation that once occupied now-drowned cities.
He becomes obsessed with a library the ancients have left sealed behind some kind of plastic, and he races against time and the destructiveness of other tribes, to comprehend their languages before the pages are drowned, disintegrate or destroyed by war.
Around him swirl other characters, if characters we can call them: Griot, so damaged by childhood trauma and soldiering that he has no emotions left, who is now effectively running the community; Tamar, Mara's daughter, who is being groomed as a scholar and the future; and snow dog Ruff, who is allowed to be the most feeling character of all, simply loved and loving (although a bit improbably intelligent and idealised for this non-dog enthusiast).
Lessing's novel is a fable, with the lingering, troubling quality of an ancient tale, a meditation on the potential hostility of the planet, the value of the culture we shore up against our ruins, and the constant presence of war and inevitability of the loss of everything learned in a lifetime. If the world ends, all the time, with each death, what is the value and meaning of our thoughts, our literature, our learning? What will be left of us? Even a novelist, who has more than most of us to leave, knows that her work is eminently destructible.
In that sense, as in others (in west African culture, a griot is the wise storyteller entrusted with relaying the history and genealogy of the tribe), the book is a puzzle and a palimpsest. But its simple structure, meandering prose and uncomplicated characters are sometimes difficult to read. Big events are accomplished in a paragraph, time passes suddenly without comment, narrative leads dribble away.
While I was reading this book, I felt frustrated: we haven't yet lost the complexities of our culture, been reduced to this rawness. But after I had put it down, it seemed to me dreamlike, haunting, powerful.
This review was first published in the Guardian
(R) thedailystar.net 2005