Thursday 29 September 2011

100% Dynamite - Part 4

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
Okay, this one is unusual on many levels, not least because it's the first in the project that I'm not reading in translation, but also because Ms Lessing has a massive body of work behind her, so the choice was a little harder to make. I plumped for this - her 1950 debut novel and the one that instantly made her name, so for the first time (though obviously not the last) I'm reading something for this project with a substantial amount of age to it.
For the first time on this mission, I'm having to skew my perspective to a different generation, something that's especially important when reading 'The Grass is Singing' because it's written from the English perspective of a woman trying to expose racism and colonial exploitation at a time when even the concepts were still radical and fresh. It's very easy to be shocked by Lessing's casual use of the derogatory language of fifties Rhodesia, but at the time there simply was no other vocabulary for what are loosely seen as workers, but in effect are little more than indentured slaves (is that the right word? Or have I just given these slaves false teeth?). So a word of warning then; for all Lessing's clearly apparent political standpoint and her indictment of colonialism, this is a novel of its time and some of its language and attitude reflects that.
The rosy eye of hindsight aside however, the great news is that this is a real novel, in every traditional sense of the world; no imagined biography, no post-modern reinterpretations of mythologies; this is a structured story about people and events with a coherent narrative that uses a simple tragedy to highlight a greater injustice - it even starts with a murder.
In technical terms, this is well-familiar ground - a body dripping blood, a grieving husband and cops bundling a slamdunk perp into the back of a paddy wagon in handcuffs. This is 1950, and I suspect Lessing is as much enamoured of the writings of James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett as she is the political stance of Orwell and Huxley. In fact, speaking of Cain, there's something of the Mildred Pierce about the central character, Mary, albeit in a tragic and grim reversal of her story arc, the arc which the novel then elegantly and movingly lays out in front of us as back story, with the reader constantly aware that this is not going to end well.
As contemporary as the language, structure and style are however, there's clearly a sense that Lessing is tapping all the way back to the height of the English novel's development when it comes to character dynamics. There is much that harks back to the Brontes and Austen in the story of a woman of relative sophistication dragged from the best that Rhodesia has to offer as society into the bush through an unsuitable marriage. Similarly, we can recognise the twisting sexually-charged sado-masochistic power exchanges of Heathcliffe and Kathy or Rochester and Jane Eyre in Mary's relationship with houseboy Moses. Similarly, the relationship between Mary and her Jonah of a husband, Dick Turner is a shifting interplay that echoes back from the harridans and wounded heroines of Hardy and the weak patriarchs of Dickens.
Ultimately, that relationship and its repeated failures form the core of the novel - for all that the 'Grass is Singing' has some brutal lessons to impart about colonialism and the appalling treatment of subjugated indigenous human beings in the dying days of Empire, its true strength is in the paradox that the very people who are (quite literally) wielding the whip are as much victims of the great imperial lie as its more obvious sufferers. It isn't the blatant brutalities and sins of colonialism that bring the protagonists down though; there's no great revelatory moment of cruelty or revolution, rather a slow drip of unfortunate circumstance, imagined slights, minute human errors, each one slowly eroding the security and well-being of the central characters, clawing them downwards into catastrophe.
Dick has been raised to believe in the invincibility of the power of the English, the agri-technology of the industrial revolution and the god-given supremacy of the white man; Mary has been raised to believe that civilisation is ice-cool movie theatres, elegant doilies and a house full of children to prolong the long pink shadow of the empire. Thrown into a barely finished shack on barren and intransigent land with a surly work force who smell independence in every nation around them and a financial system weighing Steinbeck-like on their backs ready to foreclose and steal their land, the imperial dream becomes a sweltering fester of disappointment, impotence and infertility. It's a very human and familiar story that seems to play out decade after decade around the world; an epic dream sold as manifest destiny that ordinary real human beings could never possibly fulfill.
And yes, there's a bigger picture behind the failing farmstead; an allegorical overview of the imminent self-implosion of colonialism, no more vividly apparent than in Mary's death, but this is a work free from polemic; the characters whose attitudes and beliefs are loathsome when viewed from this side of a new millennia are frail sacrifices to their own false expectations and dreams and so hugely sympathetic as a result. Given its time of writing, this is an astonishing and subversive approach to Lessing's core message; the Britain of 1950 would never have countenanced or cared about a simple diatribe suggesting that colonialism was bad for Africans; the genius of the seemingly conventional and familiar melodrama of The Grass is Singing is that Lessing is warning the reader that imperialism diminishes the oppressor as much as the oppressed.

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