Books: The Snow Queen in Ifrik

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The Independent Culture
Mara and Dann

by Doris Lessing

Flamingo pounds 16.99

is an African eco-adventure set in the distant future. Even for a non-Trekkie reader who normally bins anything about Orphne, slave-healer among the Hadrons, it offers an engrossing, if somewhat conservative, odyssey. The novel traces the journey of two orphaned refugee children, over more than a decade, who have become part of a wretched human migration through "Ifrik" from south to north. They do so in the wake of calamitous climate change and its attendant horrors of famine, instability and civil war.

The children travel with the aid of a crudely remembered map which they trace repeatedly in the dust. It takes them from the ruined Mahondi kingdom of Rustam, to the Rack Village, to Hadron and Chelops, to the River Towns, to Agre, Bilma and Tundra, and on to the final precarious haven of "the Farm", with its views of the Middle Sea. The journey correlates, roughly, with a present-day slog through Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Congo, through Nigeria, Chad and Libya, to the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, via Algeria. Throughout, in spite of periods of enslavement, cons- cription, pregnancy, murderous onslaught, starvation, water sickness and coerced commitment to a brothel, dream of "the Centre", where the mysteries of their near-extinct culture, along with their own true identities, will finally be revealed.

Lessing's book, with its giant cartbirds, its milk beasts and magnified sci-fi insects, bears resonances of various fantasy classics from Gulliver's Travels to Indiana Jones. One of its close relations is Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, since 's scattered Mahondi community, shifting rootlessly in a parched and deforested post-machine age, has similarly shored up fragments against extinction. Having fallen into illiteracy, its elders use verbally transmitted ancient texts, such as Mam Bov, Mam Bedfly, Toski and Rom and Jull, to warn against the perils of romantic love. Fertility has declined to such an alarming level that the species requires a more pragmatic approach, involving rotating males and breeding programmes.

In addition, the book has fairy tale echoes of The Snow Queen, since Mara is impelled repeatedly to rescue Dann, her attractive but flawed younger brother, who carries an ice chip in his heart. The children, in their infancy, were first terrorised, then saved from death, by a pair of lookalike bad/good brothers during a palace coup in Rustam where their parents were part of the ruling aristocracy. This experience has left Dann with a bad/good duality within himself, so that the fearless, gallant and heroic person is easily invaded by the gambler, the betrayer, the drug addict and - quelle horreur! - the participant in homosexual anal penetration practices.

It must be said that there is something uncomfortably simplistic in the presentation of good and bad in this novel. As one of a genre in which kitsch is well represented, but whose best examples are nonetheless visionary and elucidating, this book does not rise to a level of distinction. It presents neither a richly imagined future, nor a vividly crystallised present. It reads, at times movingly, as a lament for Africa, reminding us that what we envisage as the ecologically disastrous future, is the contemporary reality for swathes of the human race. The future is a pastiche of the present, with scenes in abortion clinics and drug rehab centres. There are lectures on the dangers of incontinence resulting from violent anal penetration; there are incidents of "compassion fatigue" among refugees. There is the familiar, brutal war between the tall people and the short people of central "Ifrik". Even "the Centre" has, predictably, been robbed of its treasures. One envisages these being flogged off by north African street pedlars in Italy, but then one remembers that, while Ifrik might be a rat-hole, Italy, along with the rest of "Yerrup", has become the uninhabitable "Ice Mountains" which are visible to Mara across the wastes of the Middle Sea. And the almost extinct "Albs', favoured for their scarcity and blondness, appear in Ifrik's still viable brothels.