viernes, 27 de noviembre de 2009

The Cleft by Doris Lessing

I often wait a day or two before writing a review. I find that my appreciation of a work often changes on reflection, sometimes magnifying the experience, sometimes diminishing it. In the case of Doris Lessing’s The Cleft, a little distance has considerably enhanced the initial impression, which was less than favourable.

The Cleft is quite a short novel. It just seems long. The language isn’t difficult, likewise neither are setting or plot. Not that there’s much of either.

We begin with a society that’s entirely female and where procreation just happens. When “monsters” appear, babies with ugly extra bits on the front, they are either killed or mutilated. Killing involves leaving the tiny bundles of flesh on a rock for eagles to take. But the cunning birds aren’t always hungry.

A community of squirts - grown-up monsters – begins to thrive and the women find they have to interact. New activities are mutually invented and suddenly all is change. A new race or perhaps merely a new society develops via proto-parents, develops at least twice, in fact. Journeys are made. Promised lands reveal promise. New orders establish themselves.

Meanwhile, we realise that this creation myth is being related by a Roman gentleman who has his own domestic battle of the sexes. At first sight this extra layer of narrative seems redundant. Eventually an elemental force binds the myth to the narrator’s present. The link is tenuous and as a plot device, its impact fails. It does, however, conceptually link the narrator with the related myth.

After all, Romans were themselves created, they believed, out of a myth where a pair of lads were nurtured by an animal. The military tradition (equals male) by which Rome prospered was founded on the social control of Sparta, not the demos of Athens. Sparta was probably the ultimate macho male society, where the old were revered and women were chattel, though they could own property. Doris Lessing at one point refers to Spartan youth being separated from their families at the age of seven to hone military and combat skills via camaraderie. Such an exile the monsters of The Cleft invent for themselves.

Galling at first reading and later informative were the repeated gender stereotypes that dominate Doris Lessing’s narrative. The repeated use of these bludgeoning concepts had more than an air of artifice. Looking back, I now see that this actually enhanced what emerged as the book’s overarching idea, which is our need for myth and the necessity of reducing it to the level of populist fairy tale.

The eagles who nurtured the monsters play god. The way we organise our society demands certain role models, while ceremony, often barbaric, such as genital mutilation, allies us to ideals and ideas we prefer not to question. In the end we have to explain elemental forces beyond our control and myth is our refuge.

Stick with The Cleft. It’s a tortuous journey, but it is worth it in the end, an end whose only solace may only be found in myth.

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The Cleft

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