The journey from Jack Kerouac’s cult novel On the Road to Doris Lessing’s post-apocalyptic Mara and Dann is long by any standards. Not only have we travelled from post-war America to what could be Africa in the distant future, but have also traversed a vast landscape of the imagination. Lessing’s novel is an outlier because it is not set in the United States, where, arguably, most road novels begin. Published around the turn of the century, her book is, however more aware of the concerns of our times, albeit projected into another age.

The Nobel Laureate’s picaresque story is about the northward trek of an orphaned sister and brother across the continent of Ifrik, thousands of years in the future, when an Ice Age has covered all of Yerrup, and much of Ifrik is devastated by droughts and plagued by wars. In a certain way, this book is closer to Cormac McCarthy’s spare but diamond-edged The Road, which sets its dystopia in a near-future American wasteland.

A slow trek through the gathering gloom

Not only is this “road novel” not set in the US, but it also lacks automobiles. However, we do have rusting railway carriages pushed by slaves, carts drawn by birds, ageing sky-skimmers on their way out, travelling chairs borne by slaves, and even a single solar powered boat cruising down a river – all of this in a distant future where people have lost the knowledge of manufacturing the so called sun-traps.

Lessing holds us in thrall with her imaginative powers and the wide sweep of her vision. In the author’s note, she points out that Mara and Dann’s story is a “reworking of a very old tale” to be found in many cultures – the tale of an orphaned brother and sister and their many adventures.

In Lessing’s version, the journey for Mara and her little brother Dann begins in Rustam, a town in the southern part of the continent of Ifrik. Rustam, as well as large parts of Ifrik, are ravaged by drought and wars. People are migrating north in search of water and better lives. This is a world in the grip of an Ice Age, where the Middle Sea is dry and Yerrup, north of it, is buried under thick sheets of ice.

This is a novel depicting survival in the face of unprecedented changes in the natural environment. It is also a parable about the annihilatory nature of greed, and the will to amass power, which always manages to sabotage the imaginative and creative projects of our species. A story, in other words, from any place and time.

Mara and Dann, aged seven and four, are Mahondi children who are helped to escape from Rustam to a distant village after their parents are killed in a bloody internecine battle. The tall and good-looking Mahondis are fighting each other while also being involved in a conflict with the more primitive Rock people, who live in stone dwellings. The siblings are provided shelter in one of these rock houses by a kindly Mahondi woman named Daima.

Food is scarce and the landscape all around is a picture of advancing drought, coupled with quirks of climate so common in our present time. As trees dry up and forests burn, there are sudden flash floods washing away the bones of dead animals of the past and the present.

“‘These are the extinct animals,’ said the man. ‘They died out hundreds of years ago.’ ‘Why did they?’ ‘It was the last time there was a very bad drought. It lasted for so long all the animals died. The big ones. Twice as big as our animals.’ ‘Will this drought be as long as that?’ ‘Let’s hope not,’ he said, ‘or we’ll all be extinct too.’”

As if mirroring the abject circumstances and the moral corruption that festers in the darkness that has engulfed the continent, the land is crawling with strange beasts. It is both a symbolic descent into Hell and an evolution towards ferocity – deadly water stingers hide in water holes where the thirsty population goes to drink and bathe, scorpions grow gigantic, enormous beetles multiply, and vicious dragons lie in wait to prey on famished travellers.

The darkness of the natural environment breeds darkness of the soul, and the darkness of the soul seems to beget these ferocious creatures in this powerfully imagined. There is a link here with the subconscious, a connection with that well inside us where nightmares are brewed. It reminds us of Haruki Murakami’s story “Kino” which appeared in the New Yorker, where venomous snakes begin to appear outside a bar whose owner had something bottled up in his head.

Mara and Dann’s road stretches far beyond the love and care of Daima. People are travelling north in search of water and a different life. Dann is the one who leaves first, without telling his sister, only to return some years later – a tall, strapping almost adult, with sharp clever eyes, someone who noticed and remembered. By then the village had emptied out and Daima was old.

The youthful Dann is strong but he has developed an odd fear of look-alikes. Soon after Daima’s death, brother and sister leave the village, headed north, with just enough food to last a few days and a cache of gold coins to see them through many dangers along the way.


The harrowing journey

This novel is mostly about the trials and tribulations of the long journey north, through hostile territory, through countries ruled by slave-keepers, their slow progress across war ravaged nations, in and out of the clasp of pimps and brothel keepers and up wide rivers like the Cong which is infested with water dragons. But now and then a rare individual crosses their path, who either because of kinship or reasons of their own, alleviates the hardship of the road.

So in the city of Chelops run by the dissolute slave-keeping Hadrons, Mara and Dann are taken in and protected by members of their Mahondi kin. They spend months in Chelops, where in a block of abandoned highrises taken over by junkies and criminals, Dann sinks to the depths of addiction. This story of the towers run over by criminal gangs comes close to the fate of the real-life Ponte City towers of Johannesburg, in turn setting us thinking about the similarities between Johannesburg and Chelops.

There are many clues in the names and stories of this future world to places, stories and books familiar to us. There still flows the great rivers Cong and Nilus, and there is the country of Charad, where brother and sister are recruited by opposing armies. In this godforsaken continent where books no longer exist, people vaguely remember tales of old, tales of Mam Bova (Madame Bovary), Ankrena (Anna Karenina) and about the love of Rom and Jull (Romeo and Juliet).

“The first was an old myth about a girl called Jull and a boy called Rom, from different clans, and they fell in love and killed themselves because the clans disapproved. This tale provoked much more discussion than yesterday’s, for someone said, ‘Like Mahondis and Hadrons,’ and they shuddered at the idea of being in love with an ugly Hadron.”

Love, both romantic and sensual, still blooms in these accursed lands. A general falls in love with Mara, Dann flips for a Mahondi girl, clients fall for women of pleasure.

And in the end…

Along their northward trek across Ifrik, there are hints that their arrival was anticipated and that Mara and Dann are predestined for something big. In the final leg of their journey, which takes them to the North Lands, the siblings are faced with a choice which explains to them the expectations surrounding their arrival. It also reveals how the quest for power, in all ages and times – imaginary or real – springs silently in the human mind, as the nemesis of the creative and scientific projects that define our species.

From a very young age the Mahondi children played the game of “What did you See?”, which essentially instilled in Mara the importance of observation. In a world where books have disappeared and knowledge is passed on orally by the so called “Memories” (those who remembered) this important lesson of youth stands her in good stead all through the journey.

The lessons that Mara picked up from Daima and, even earlier, in Rustam, sees her through many dangers of the road. Many, but not all. Brother and sister are continuously pursued by Kulik, the headman of Daima’s village, who will kill them both if he could. Will Kulik succeed in the end? How will Mara fare as a soldier of the Hennes army while her brother rises through the ranks of their enemy, the army of the Agres? Packed to the gills with adventure and suspense, this novel works at the level of a thriller too, even as its important underlying messages are conveyed without authorial intrusion.

The Hennes soldiers are a curiosity because they all look the same. On the road north, Mara and Dann had already encountered such groups of look-alikes. They remind us of Aldous Huxley’s Bokanovsky groups in Brave New World. Lessing here seems to be telling us how the genetic engineering experiments of a long forgotten time had bred these curiosities who, Dann thinks, “have only one mind between them”.

Is this them or is this us?

This is a book we remember not for prose style or engaging characters. While Mara and Dann’s characters are fully developed, some of the others seem to be there just to propel the story forward. But it is in fact in the virtuosity of its storytelling that the greatness of this book lies. This road novel gives us a story which is a mirror to our species, working through many twists and turns, through the gradual enkindling of hope as the siblings journey to more prosperous lands – where trees still thrive – through the weaving together of a veritable bazaar of humanity – the pale Albs, displaced from Yerrup to northern Ifrik by the ice, the lazy ganja-smoking Hadrons, the praying men of Kanaz, the fighting Hennes and Agres of Charad, the long-legged Neanthes, the frizzy-haired Rock people, and the tall and good-looking Mahondis, once the rulers of the continent – through the ever-present threat of a pursuer, and through an exploration of the crests and depths that the human soul can climb or plunge into. The depths are numerous, the crests few.

Near the Rock village, amongst a pile of ruins, Mara discovers intricate carvings of war scenes from different time periods, like a palimpsest, which stand testimony to the bloodthirstiness of our kind. Much later during their journey, in a museum of North Lands, the siblings discover detailed records of the machines and weapons of war from the warm interregnum before the current Ice Age. Some of these were so unbelievably complicated and cruel that Mara finds it hard to believe what she is reading:

“But the end of the story in every building was war, and the ways of war became crueller and more terrible. In a room in a building that had only machines of war, was a wall that listed the ways it was thought these ancient peoples would have ended their civilisations even if the ice had not arrived. War was one.”

And the records at this museum, noting the utter lack of concern for the environment among these ancients, said:

“These were peoples who had no interest in the results of their actions. They killed out the animals. They poisoned the fish in the sea. They cut down forests, so that country after country, once forested, became desert or arid. They spoiled everything they touched. There was probably something wrong with their brains. There are many historians who believe that these ancients richly deserved the punishment of the Ice.”

And yet these ancients had created an advanced civilisation but all that knowledge had been lost. One day Mara asks Daima what she meant by the word “invented”.


‘You don’t know the word because nothing is invented now. Once, long ago, there was a civilisation – a kind of way of living – that invented all kinds of new things. They had science – that means, ways of thinking that try to find out how everything works – and they kept making new machines, and metals…’ She stopped talking for a while, seeing Mara’s face, then put out her old hand and laid it over Mara’s. ‘There was once a time, but it was a long, long time ago, when there were machines so clever they could do everything – anything you could think of, they could do it – but I’m not talking about then. No one knows why all that came to an end. They say that there were so many wars because of those machines that everyone all over the world decided to smash them.”

Throughout the novel there is this wistfulness bordering on admiration for the great intelligence of the ancients. But this is balanced by a realisation of their utter foolishness, their disregard for the environment, and their design of apocalyptic machines of war.

War. Wars never ceased. Wars, battles and strife still ravage the countries through which Mara and Dann head northwards. War then is the common denominator, the distilled absolute of our species, the eternal pursuit and distinguishing trait of our kind. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As sister and brother journey across a ravaged continent, in search of water and food, in their absolute faith in the road to take them somewhere better, in Dann’s imperative to go further north, it is this blood thirst and the quest for power that they encounter time and again. In between, there are those rare appearances of friends and do-gooders. They arrive in the endless night of a world controlled by humans – like aliens with the light.

Mara and Dann: An Adventure, Doris Lessing, HarperColl

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction, will be published next year.