In Mara’s world, nourishment consists of yellow roots, white tasteless lumps, and dry leaves without specific names; sour milk or milk directly from a large beast, flour bought from a trader and mixed with muddy water and cooked on a hot rock. She occasionally stays with people with somewhat better food. Her first taste of meat is a raw frog that emerges from mud after a rare rainstorm. Mara eventually learns to eat slabs of muscle meat cooked on a fire. But few things have a precise name.
Mara owns a water can and some clothing that never wear out because the materials came from an earlier more sophisticated civilization. All her possessions fit in a sack that she carries as she treks through a dying landscape where rain has ceased to fall.
Dann, Mara’s brother, travels with her most of the way through the book-long journey. He carries a knife and an axe, metal tools that no one seems able to make any more, and defends them against other desperate wanderers. From time to time they are taken into slavery, where at least they receive real meals. Eventually they reach a land where people have copied guns from ancient examples. War and famine follow them everywhere.
Everything about their journey is vivid, but tedious. Doris Lessing is such a wonderful story-teller that I’ve been working through difficult books like this forever, it seems. She must tell you everything about a woman and all her challenges, and you must listen.
Thinking back, I considered how Doris Lessing provided a foundation for feminists of the seventies. Her early works from the fifties and sixties explored the experience of woman in a groundbreaking way. Her characters (almost exclusively women) had lived through World War II in colonial Africa; early marriage as unequals to their often intellectually inferior husbands; desperate desire for education and challenging jobs when none was available, and second-class status in left-wing politics. They had undergone psychoanalysis at the hands of well-meaning and likable other women but it hadn’t made them what they wanted to be. But slowly Doris Lessing’s women emerged into something that I think she wanted them to be. And feminists loved it.
The multi-volume personal history of the fictional character Martha Quest went through all this, and came out in a new world that hadn’t happened yet (though I think it’s now technically in the past). The Four-Gated City, with Martha Quest as a much older woman, was set in a future of Doris Lessing’s devising. The details of that future allowed Lessing to explore aspects of life that weren’t possible in the real world that she had been describing with painful accuracy before.
Doris Lessing continued to create new environments and check out how women would handle them. She wasn’t writing science fiction, just doing thought experiments, is what I would say. Some worked better than others. Virtually all Lessing’s created futures are extremely unpleasant. I haven’t read everything she’s written but I’ve read a lot. War, famine, bad faith in political systems, degeneration of family and civil society, and other extremes all beset her societies -- normal demands of life don't set sufficient extremes. When she removes civilization and its protections, women characters like Mara have to deal with men who are stronger than they are, as well as with the danger of pregnancy from any encounter, willing or not.
Mara and Dann, published in 1999 extends these thought experiments. Mara is the center. She’s born into an aristocratic family somewhere in Africa just as long years of drought destroy any possibility of their continuing to live. Food and water have disappeared as rivers and waterways have dried up, trees died, and animals starved. As a child of seven, Mara must start fending for herself and caring for her younger brother. Both are scarred by their experiences with hostile strangers, then raised by a woman whose dedication to them is somewhat mysterious.
As late adolescents, they begin a long journey north in search of a place where there is comfort, security, food and water. The drought, famine, wars between diverse races and peoples, and the disastrously hostile human and natural environment challenge Mara in ways that Doris Lessing’s characters from the 1950s could never be challenged.
For one thing, she is intellectually deprived, as well as starving and nearly dying of thirst. She has no words for cattle and goats (all are called milk beasts) or crocodiles (called water dragons), no ability to count much above her fingers and toes, no words for human sex organs or sex acts, no identification for plants in her landscape, only guesses about what might poison her, no words for the past or its technologies. She gets occasional glimpses of the civilizations that existed 10 or 15,000 years earlier and clearly produced advanced devices, weapons, transportation, and arts. That would have been us.
Mara and Dann finally reach a farmstead where a settled life seems possible – but like many of Lessing’s tales, this one ends with ambiguity.