Story about tales:
future fable narratives.
And Lessing is more…
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter,
Griot and the Snow Dog
Harper Perennial 2006 (2005)
The frequent description “future fable” just exactly describes this wonderful novel, a richly detailed tapestry of lives and themes and meditations on the world as it might well become. The tale of the young man Dann, who had experienced and accomplished so much in a preceding novel, is both deeply sympathetic and sad, and this reader, any reader in fact, does not need to have read the prequel to make connections with his character.
The story is set some millennia on from now, at a time when a thaw is beginning in the new Ice Age that has seen the glaciers and ice sheets reach the southern shores of Europe and lower the sea levels in the Mediterranean. Dann and his contemporaries inhabit the northern fringes of Africa (somewhere around present-day Tunisia perhaps) where rumours of war are commonplace and refugees are frequent. There are recognisable descendants of Africans, Asians and Europeans peopling this world but the action is mostly set in the ruins of ‘the Centre’, where museum exhibits and sealed-in books provide a barely translucent window on a past rapidly disappearing from view and receding from human understanding.
The language of The Story of General Dann is simply couched but never simplistic. The novel is suffused with the theme of narrative, from Dann’s brief occupation as a story-teller to Griot’s attempt to make real the storyline in his own head: the rise of a leader who will inspire an army, recover lost knowledge and found a new civilisation; and others have already pointed out the obvious, that the name Griot is a West African term for a story-teller.
Dann himself is suffering from a bipolar disorder exacerbated by the fallout from forced opium use in his earlier life. The theme of polarities is echoed in many other ways, not least in the use of differently coloured cloaks by different armies, red by one, black by another. Dann is hero-worshipped by Griot, a former boy-soldier, who hopes that Dann will provide a focus for order, direction, conquest and the preservation of knowledge – all the elements in fact that may allow a dimly-perceived civilisation to be resurrected in the marshy foothills of the Atlas mountains. All are groping in the dark, and while there is a resolution of sorts in the closing pages of the novel, it is clear that civilisation will have to emerge anew rather than from the ruins of its former manifestation.
The final point I want to make concerns Lessing’s portrayal of the female characters in the book. It is in these individuals – Dann’s deluded and drug-addicted former partner, his bullying daughter, his niece (the daughter of his sister Mara), the natural healer – that the author’s fable-telling is most manifest. Yes, these are individuals, but they are also almost stereotypes, and while we feel for them – their strengths, their foibles, their victimhoods, their successes – they appear, as with the male characters, somewhat distant. This is not just because they are in some never-never land in the far future; it is because, I think, these characters could be each and every one of us if we found ourselves in such a situation. And if it makes us pause and think, ‘Would we manage any better in such circumstances?’ then that is only one of many positive aspects of this thoughtful and haunting novel.
The Story of General Dann reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s speculative novels: there is the same melancholy, the avoidance of trite formulae, the consideration of the individual’s relationship to society. Though this is my first Lessing story, its predecessor Mara and Dann: an Adventure is already tempting me from the bookshelves.