I deeply respect Doris Lessing’s ability to breath life into characters, and in “The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)”, she breathes life into rooms and walls and more. Doris Lessing is one of the most intelligent writers, certainly one of my favorite. I wish I could have a glimpse of how she creates her works. Such coherence and linkages as though the beginning is planned as the ending is written, and vice versa.
For example, the ‘it’. Only when I re-read parts of the book did I noticed that on page 9, she wrote:
I shall begin this account at a time before we were talking about ‘it’. We were still in the stage of generalised unease. Things weren’t too good, they were even pretty bad … But ‘it’, in the sense of something felt as an immediate threat which could not be averted too.
I did not take much notice until I read towards the end of the book, on page 130, she wrote:
Very well then, but what was ‘it’? I am sure that ever since there were men on earth ‘it’ has been talked of precisely in this way in times of crisis, since it is in crisis ‘it’ becomes visible, and our conceit sinks before its forces. For ‘it’ is a force, a power, talking in the form of earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night distorting all thought by fear – ‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.
‘It’, in short, is the word for helpless ignorance, or of helpless awareness. It is a word for man’s inadequacy?
I would have missed that linkage. Also, only when I re-read from the beginning, I can attempt to understand the concept, her concept of ‘they’ and ‘them’. Attempt, as this book is anything but an easy read. On the surface, it is a simple story being told from the eyes of a woman – the narrator. It is a time of near-future when an unspecified disaster causes our society to plunge into the age of barbarism, when people are constantly on a move based on scarce news to a better and more livable place, when no one possesses anything but to constantly make do with what they come across and pass them on, when there is no law and order, and when survival matters.
One day, a small girl Emily is given to this woman’s care. And comes with this girl is an ugly dog with the look of a cat. For that part of the story, it reminds me of her book “The Story Of General Dann And Mara’s Daughter, Griot And The Snow Dog”. A young girl and her animal companion. The story spans the several years of the little girl’s growing up, the crowds gather at the ‘pavement’ in front of the house they occupied, the emergence of children from the sewage system not brought up by humans, but rather behave like monsters. Monsters. Such ugliness that strongly reminisces of the main character of “Ben In The World”. How Emily has fallen in love with the young leader Gerald, helping him to build communities, authority, and how Gerald – when everyone has given up on those monstrous children who kill and destroy all that they see – never gives up on these children. A close reference to W. H. Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’ (a poem called “September 1, 1939”). Someone has made a note “Lord of the Flies” in the library book that I borrowed. It is a classic written by William Golding in 1954. I think there is a certain level of validity on that association.
Layer on top of this straightforward storyline is how the narrator – the woman – sees the surrounding walls transform into images and messages that transcend space and time. It is when the woman sees the past of Emily – her father, her mother, her little brother, and the babysitter. Each past from each room, each wall, comes with different metaphor that explains the certain current state of Emily as the narrator observes. Emily initially is described as ‘invincibly obedience’. As the narrator observes, there are more and more flaws, then explained by the visions from the walls. More and more respectable capabilities are observed, as the story unfolds. That is what I meant by breathing life into a character that Doris Lessing has done it so well. The narrator never gets too close to Emily, always observes from a distance.
It is hard to describe how Doris Lessing manages to make the ‘walls’ sound so convincing. She describes the wall as ‘personal’. In my limited understanding – perhaps I need to read the book again several more times – in that world, nothing is personal as no one truly owns anything. The only thing ‘personal’ is our memory and our vision, hence represented by the ‘personal’ wall. And as dramatic as her stories that I have read, just when I was deeply depressed by the gloominess towards the end of the story, a wall – that the narrator promises to show no more – ‘appears’ in a different capacity, in hope and beauty. That ending, lifts my soul high.
“The Memoirs of a Survivor” lightly explores the concepts of community, feminism, survival, administration, government, and authority – or simply put, humanity. The most memorable metaphor is how our next generation take what we have used and discarded and create something of their own, something beautiful and useful. In the story, the narrator’s job is a news gatherer. Doris Lessing does not tell the readers how important news is in time of uncertainty. She starves the readers with meagre amount of news that every little plot she discloses I hold dear to, digest and re-digest again. But still, what causes the disaster? Are there really big blue fish in the sea? Or yellow? No one knows.
Note: Doris Lessing is the Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature 2007 – “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.