Mara And Dann: An Adventure

Norah Vincent reviews 'Mara and Dann' by Doris Lessing.

Published January 8, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If at least two Doris Lessings can be said to exist in that writer's massive body of work -- the introspective, politically minded one of "The Golden Notebook" and the Martha Quest novels, and the wildly imaginative one of the "Canopus in Argos: Archives" -- then the Doris Lessing of this most recent fantasy novel is the latter. What Lessing did in space with the "Canopus" quintet she now does on Earth with "Mara and Dann." This dystopian vision of our planet undergoing another ice age thousands of years in the future is something on the order of "Paradise Lost" in reverse, or a children's "Odyssey" for two.

In the middle of the night, our surrogate Adam and Eve, 7-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are kidnapped from their home in the southern region of the continent called Ifrik. They are deposited at a safe house farther north where intermittent droughts and floods have made the land all but uninhabitable except by giant lizards, insects and a few hearty survivors known as "the rock people." So begins Mara and Dann's arduous and perilous journey ever farther north toward their Eden, the lush and clement northern coast of Ifrik. As they grow into adolescents, and then young adults, they travel through hundreds of miles of terrain dotted by various troubled civilizations.

As ever, Lessing is concerned with race and class in her (this time) parabolic Africa. For their protection, Mara and Dann's true identities are kept from them, but they are, in fact, the only surviving members of the Mahondi royal family. The Mahondi, a race of people who once ruled the entire continent of Ifrik, are nearly extinct and openly hated by their former subjects. Mara and Dann are the sole heirs to their slain parents' kingdom; the Alexei and Anastasia Romanovs of their time and place, saved from execution by their beneficent kidnappers and sheltered from their pursuers by a network of loyalists. In their eventual Eden, Mara and Dann form a kind of commune with their companions of various races and classes.

In a retrospective introduction to the Vintage edition of "Canopus in Argos," Lessing commented on the tendency of reviewers and academics to dismiss science fiction and fantasy as lesser genres. The question of what constitutes "literature" has been raised again recently over Tom Wolfe's "A
Man in Full,"
which both Norman Mailer and John Updike have dismissed as unworthy of the name. Is "Mara and Dann" literature? It lacks the explicit intellectual rigor of "The Golden Notebook," but because it will make you think about and vividly imagine some of the deeper questions of human existence, "Mara and Dann" must qualify, in some sense, as literature.

Lessing's prose here is deceptively simple. There are no grand pronouncements, no outright disquisitions on imperialism, postcolonialism, incest (Mara and Dann struggle with their romantic attachment to each other), ecosystemic disaster, the second sex, the failure of communism or the persistence of slavery in Africa today, but they, and much more, are implied, embedded in Lessing's spare portrait of a world in which everything and nothing about nature and culture has changed radically. If there is a theme, or aphorism, to be gleaned from Lessing's storybook view into the distant future, it is not the familiar conviction that "This, too, shall pass," but, after Nietzsche, the bitter conclusion that "This, too, will happen again ... and again, and again."

By Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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