One of postcolonial fiction’s brightest lights makes mythic the battle of the sexes.
It’s men vs. women. Or, less subtly, “Monsters” vs. “Clefts.” Lessing (The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, 2005, etc.), manufacturing a legend out of prose somewhere between grunting and incantation, imagines pre-history. As if commenting on ancient lore, a Roman senator tells of “the Cleft where the red flowers grow,” a Shangri-La soon to turn oppressive that’s peopled only by moon-worshipping women bearing the name of their land. One day, on this isle of Fish Skin Curers, Seaweed Collectors and Old Shes, a virgin birth produces a Monster, complete with a “tube” below his navel and nipples that “aren’t good for anything.” As in old Greece, unwanted babies are exposed to the elements on the Cleft, and even while the Clefts insist that “there is no record of any of us doing cruel things—not until the Monsters were born,” they leave most of the Monsters out to die or castrate them. Except Maire, who instinctively mates with one of the surviving Monsters grown to adulthood (they’re then dubbed “Squirts”). In time, more Cleft-Squirt copulation ensues (they do it fast, Lessing says, like birds). The Squirt offspring are pretty much dunderheads who “did not understand that if they did this, then that would follow,” but they’re resourceful, making fire and suckling female deer when their Cleft mothers abandon them. After a while, in this anti-Genesis, an alternative Adam and Eve rise up: Horsa and Maronna. Like all Clefts, who “always talked down to the men, chiding and scolding,” Maronna rules the roost; Horsa explores. But just as he seems about to venture toward some new wonderland and Clefts and Monsters achieve some kind of acceptance, the Cleft, like Vesuvius, explodes.
A dark parable, powerful yet baffling.