The visionary new novel from one of the twentieth century's greatest writers. Doris Lessing returns to the world of visionary fiction, first visited in her 'Canopus in Argos' quintet of novels in the 1980s, and Mara and Dann, of which this is a sequel, in 1999. The earth's climate has changed -- it is colder than ever before -- and Dann, four in the first book, is now grown up and a general, and the man to whom everyone looks for guidance and leadership. Doris Lessing's new novel charts his adventures across the frozen wastes of the north, a journey that will eventually lead to the discovery of a secret library.
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Doris Lessing was born in Persia in 1919 and brought up in Rhodesia. She first came to England in 1949 and her first novel was published in 1950. She is now widely recognized as one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century.From The Washington Post:
Doris Lessing imagines a bleak future. Ice has crushed Europe, its people fleeing south to Africa, where drought and famine prey on everyone. Europe becomes Yerrup, Africa becomes Ifrik, and civilization devolves. Everything is forgotten: how to make machines, how to read books, how to learn, how to create. Only survival matters in this newly primitive world.
Lessing first wrote about Ifrik seven years ago in Mara and Dann, which follows a young brother and sister on a desperate trip from the south of the continent to the north, where conditions are said to have improved. That novel is subtitled "An Adventure," and it is full of kidnappings, narrow escapes, desperate (dare I say incestuous?) love and misshapen villains.
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is a different sort of book, not least because its title outweighs its contents. The classic simplicity of the first novel -- a brother and sister searching for safety -- is replaced by angst-ridden ramblings, and the high seriousness with which Lessing clearly takes her work is unleavened by stirring plot points.
The story begins where Mara and Dann ends: Brother and sister have found comfortable refuge with their lovers on a farm far to the north. But Dann discovers that peace -- and seeing his sister with another man -- can be unsettling. He flees to the nearby Centre, a palace complex with a secret stash of long-lost knowledge. He is followed by Griot. Dann led an army during one of the longer stops along his northern journey, and Griot, a loyal soldier, expects him to do it again. Refugees are streaming into the Centre, in the hope that Dann will be the one finally to establish a country where they can rest and prosper.
Yet Dann's sense of history -- his own and the dimly recalled tales of dead civilizations -- paralyzes him. "Over and over again, all the effort and the fighting and the hoping, but it ends in the Ice, or in cities sinking down out of sight into the mud," he laments. And laments. And laments some more. And when he gets the news that Mara has died giving birth to a daughter, he goes mad. He is brought back to health and sanity by the love of a good dog and Griot's determination that Dann should do what the people expect of him. Eventually, with minimal drama, he does, establishing a peaceable kingdom in nearby Tundra.
Any novel about a depressed person, even one set in an imagined world, can be tedious at times. Lessing's Ifrik -- with its bands of emaciated and glassy-eyed refugees, its communities willfully blind to the calamities of war and drought that stalk them, its dearth of gentleness -- is the more compelling character here, one worth meeting as we ponder what our own climate change has in store for us.
Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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