The Memoirs Of A Survivor By Doris Lessing – An Amazing Journey Beyond Survival, Beyond Time And Space

A book by Doris Lessing published in the 70s
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”.

Doris Lessing – The Story Of General Dann And Mara’s Daughter, Griot And The Snow Dog

Doris Lessing - The Story of General Dann and Mara\'s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog

By no means I wish to diminish the genius of Doris Lessing, the sequel to the epic novel “Mara and Dann” reads more like an extension than a novel that exists in its own right.  But, any kind of follow on story on where “Mara and Dann” has left off is going to be a piece of good news to the fans – at least to me.

Unlike “Mara and Dann”, “The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog” (year 2005, 282 pages, hardcover) has a totally different emphasis; and that emphasis is certainly not of the civilization progression and the struggle of survival that has been so well covered in “Mara and Dann”.  Like some of Doris Lessing’s previous works, there is a switch of perspective here and the world is now seen through the lens of Dann instead of Mara. 

I won’t cover how the story begins in this review as by doing so will inevitably give away the ending of the prequel.  All I can say is that the story dwells more on human emotion from within rather than a plot driven by quests and events as it was for the prequel.  Some readers may wonder why so much literature is spend on the internal struggle of Dann himself against his the other side and the undying loyalty to General Dann through the eyes and heart of Captain Griot.  To me, feeling seldom changes overnight; perspective seldom changes overnight; we seldom change overnight.  For the patience ones, the reward is the seamless transition of perspectives through different characters and to be able to observe how the characters grow, gradually and realistically.

Added to the main storyline are Mara’s daughter Tamar and a snow dog Ruff.  The snow dog has certainly added a new dimension of the story telling never seen before in “Mara and Dann”.  For the observant ones, I think the brilliance of having a snow dog as the plot unveiled is an attempt to explain and perhaps acts as a redemption to what happens at the beginning of the story.

This story reads like an extension partly because the physical location covered is a lot lesser than its prequel.  Dann’s perpetually yearning for exploration does guide him towards the Ice Cliffs of Yerrup – a part of the world that is new to “Mara and Dann”.  Other than that, the majority of the plot happens in North Ifrik.  And similar to “Mara and Dann”, this sequel does not have a main quest.  For those are hoping and expecting to read a story of how one man can save the world, this is not a story of such kind.  And no, I would not recommend you to read this before its prequel either.

With its open ending, I will not be surprised that there will be another sequel in the making.  Even if there is none, I am happy that the story ends where it is now, more so than how it was ended in “Mara and Dann”.

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Mara And Dann By Doris Lessing – An Adventure Of A Sister And A Brother During The Next Ice Age

Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing

Having read a few of the books by the Nobel Price winner in literature, Doris Lessing, I am curious about her another genre that is not popularly accepted by the critics – science fiction.  So I picked up “Mara and Dann” (year 1999, 407 pages) from our National Library.  I have not read all of her thirty over books yet but if the book publisher describes the heroine of this book as “one of Doris Lessing’s most appealing heroines”, I would gladly take their words for it is a nice departure from the rather dark and depressing titles of “The Fifth Child” and its sequel “Ben in the World” whereby the main character is more or less a monster living in our own world.

Perhaps human condition regardless of time is depressing.  Life is hard.  And the saving grace throughout the time continuum is love.  In “Mara and Dann”, the story is set somewhere in the distant future when our Earth is covered in ice – except Ifrik (equivalent to our modern day Africa).  Dotted in this continent Ifrik are civilizations of different progression (stone age, medieval, military, religion, and science), people of different shapes and colors, richness and the poor, and in the diverse race of the Mahondi,  the Rock People, the Hadrons, the Hennes, the Agre, and the Albs, nothing escape the sharp eyes of Mara who is always hunger for knowledge.

Abducted since young, Mara – a Mahondi by birth – began an epic journey traversing Ifrik together with her little brother Dann.  The main plot evolves around Mara with Dann coming in and out of Mara’s journey.  In “Mara and Dann”, you will get to experience Ifrik first hand with Mara.  You may even feel the thirst and hunger of Mara like I do, and the joy and desperation.  You will certainly see how the characters grow as they aged, how their bonding gets stronger as days go by.

What some may see lacking maybe a main quest within the story.  What propel me to continue reading the book, however, was simply: what will Mara see next?  In such, “Mara and Dann” is a different type of page turner perhaps more appealing to those who are drawn to the world of scare resources, slavery, conflicts, racism, and sexism.  My main take home messages are two: (1) we always expect things to remain the way they always do (which they don’t) and (2) we can’t truly understand something unless we experience them.

A timely read as we ourselves are faced with the challenge of climate change, today.

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Ben In The World By Doris Lessing – Sympathetic Love And Desperation Mashed Into One

Ben In The World - Doris Lessing

I have written and rewritten this entry so many times that it is no longer funny.  So I shall get straight into the point.  The beauty – which ironically the word beauty is the least appropriate word to describe the story – of “Ben in the World” is that Doris Lessing has created a main character so far fetched from the current reality (a yeti? a primate?), put this hideous being into an imperfect world of greed, abuse, violence, indifference, and desperation (a.k.a. our reality) and you wonder, who or what is more hideous?  The main character, Ben, or the rest of the scumbags?  And because Ben is so out-of-this-world, it gets you curious in finding out who he is and what he is.  But that is not all that “Ben in the World” has to offer.  Just when you thought you have seen it all and let your common sense anticipates how the storyline unfolds, you are vastly disappointed.  The storyline simply defies all expectations, fails to resolve the way you want it to be, and this frustration motivates you to make connection with the main character of the book and you wonder, who is more frustrated?  You or Ben?  And when you finish reading the very last sentence, it suddenly hits you.  It is you whom Doris Lessing is talking to.  It is you who should feel ashamed of being indifference to the less fortunate, physically and mentally challenged ones.

OK, I am ashamed of who I am.

I think what Doris Lessing does is witty.  Through the little actions and conversations of her characters, she invokes metaphors that aid self-reflection.  In “The Fifth Child”, the focal point is onto Ben’s family, especially his mother Harriet.  I must say while I view “The Fifth Child” as a story with a powerful plot that comes down to maternal love, unconditional love, I was greatly curious about what this abnormal child of Harriet really like.  What pleases him?  What does he want in life?  How does he perceive external environment?  Is he evil?  And “Ben in the World” picks up where “The Fifth Child” leaves off.  If the original story is about maternal love, unconditional love, I would say this sequel is about sympathetic love and desperation.

The last sentence of the book still lives vividly in my mind.  Oh God, I want to unread that.  PS. That sentence only makes sense if you read the book.

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The Fifth Child By Doris Lessing – Horror Or Tragedy? You Decide

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing needs no introduction in my site (please refer to the previous entry).  I had one other book in mind when I visited the library last week but it was not available.  So I have decided to pick another book authored by Doris Lessing.  Spoilt by options, I chose a rather short novel (160 pages) – “The Fifth Child” – as well as its sequel “Ben in the World”.  The sequel was selected by pure chance.

Reading Doris Lessing reminded me of one of the literature values the famous Italian writer Italo Calvino promoted in his “Six Memos for the Next Millennium” – Quickness.  The pace of “The Fifth Child” is extremely fast especially for the first quarter of the book.  The two main characters – David and Harriet – fell in love, bought a huge mansion in London, had their first child, then second, then third, then fourth and in the same period, other family characters were introduced to paint a ‘happy’ and ‘cheerful’ environment for the couple who was determined to be happy and had as many children as possible – all within 40 of pages.

Then Harriet was pregnant with the fifth child.  And that is when the story turns into a tragedy.  This thing that was born has no better word to describe than perhaps, troll or goblin or medieval human being.  Doris Lessing’s subtle sensitivity shines through the passages of horror and shock that each character has to bear.  The ‘happy’ family was shattered, no longer lived in harmony, and there came the irrational actions of Harriet’s heroic struggle to love her son without reciprocation, against the will of her family.  Nobody would understand.  I too would not.  However, under Doris Lessing’s pen, Harriet’s unconditional, yet difficult, love towards this thing inspires the readers how powerful maternal love can be.  The feeling described is so real that, to me, it almost read as a horror story that I could not stop reading.

I have just started reading the sequel “Ben in the World”.  So far, it is even better than “The Fifth Child”.  If you have the stomach for this kind of novel, you may wish to give it a try.

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