Tuesday 11 August 2009

Far North and far south.

Far North by Marcel Theroux was the book that my book group was reading a few months ago. I didn't manage to get hold of a copy so never went to the meeting. However when we were discussing 'All the Pretty Horses' the other week (not a good discussion since only two of us had read the book!) we drifted back to talking about the other recent books, and then Mo offered to lend me this, and another one she had read on a similar theme (it's upstairs, can't recall the title just now). I quite like what you might refer to as 'post-holocaust' books, where civilisation has come to an end for whatever reason, because they are about what human beings are capable off in the most extreme of situations.
Rather like 'All the Pretty Horses', it was pretty brutal. It appears to be set in some indeterminate future in the aftermath of global climate change where basically most people are dead and there is just a terrible struggle for survival. The main character, Makepeace (a rather appropriate name I thought, and deliberately ambiguous), grew up through a time of upheaval and shifting population, where people travelled to try and find a means of survival, until such time as nothing remains of society as you might think of it. She (for it turns out she is a woman) 'rescues' someone who turns out to also be a woman and an escaped prisoner. The young woman, Ping, is pregnant, but the next thing you know she has simply died, not explanation, and Makepeace has left the city and is living in an abandoned hut in the forest. You get the impression that she is fighting all the time to armour herself against the world and all that it throws at her. She does not tell us what happened to Ping and the baby, but she had obviously allowed herself to form a bond with her, something she had also obviously avoided doing for the years since her family had died. The idea of the baby had given her hope for the future, and when they died she tried to escape from the hopelessness that overcame her by running from everything that she was familiar with. In the depths of her hopelessness she decides to kill herself, and is drowning in the lake when an aeroplane flies overhead, and drags her back from the edge. It is a symbol of civilisation, that there is something or somebody outside the world she knows that is trying to create a new society. It crashes into the forest nearby but she becomes obsessed with finding out where it came from, and with this new purpose in mind she sets out. The trouble is that all she finds is more brutality. Every time she trusts someone it turns out she really shouldn't have. She ends up in a slave labour camp, where life continues on it's nasty course, landing her after a few years as a guard and leading to her eventual escape. You get little moments of hope, like when she helps a young boy that they find in the forest, and the gesture is repaid to her later in the story when she is captured by his people, but they are few and far between. The total lack of real human contact and caring is crushing. The survival of the human spirit is quite startling in such an environment. And then she sees another aeroplane, and in pursuing it she learns the background to the prison she was in and what they are doing in the 'Zone'. And you begin to think that all hope really must be lost .... but not quite.
A real and thoroughly engaging tale of human endurance, of how people need people even when you know that they will only bring you more trouble.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier is a totally different kettle of fish. A surreal book. But strangely similar in that it's central character is a woman struggling for survival in the extreme cold. Laura is, however, at the other end of the world, having been sent to the Antarctic by the Coca Cola company on a fake research mission. Another similarity is the 'end of the world' scenario, again man-made, though this time it appears to take the form of a virus that is laying waste to the world's population. But it is not really about the people dying, but what happens after they die. It is about the world 'in between', where people are obliged to wait if there is someone still alive on earth who remembers them.
Alternate chapters tell Laura's story and the tale of the people who are in this spiritual waiting room. They watch the comings and goings of whole populations, and get news from newcomers of what is happening back in 'life'. So they learn about the virus, and their waiting city becomes fuller and fuller then it begins suddenly to empty again, until eventually Luka thinks he is the only person left. He finds a blind man, and then Minny, a childhood friend of Laura's, and then Laura's parents, and the group people who live in the city gradually piece together why there are so few of them left ... the 'Laura theory' ... that she is the only person left alive.
Meanwhile Laura has lost all communication with the outside world so she leaves her hut and travels by sled to the station on the coast, in pursuit of her two colleagues who went for help some weeks previously. Everyone there turns out to be dead and her only hope is a powerful transmitter at the penguin colony, so some weeks later she sets out again. I guess it is quite hard to describe cold. I have never been anywhere that cold but I am wondering if after a while you stop noticing how cold you are, because for Laura the cold seems to become so matter of fact. The only bit I didn't like was the 'nearly falling down a crevasse' incident, which was just a stupid and unnecessary cliche taken straight from some disaster film, and I am not sure it would be physically possible for her to climb 15 feet up a rope with bare hands in such temperatures, but who am I to argue. When first her sled and then her heated tent stop working you know it is only a matter of time. At the same time the waiting room city is shrinking around it's occupants, though there doesn't appear to be any sense anxiety amongst the people, since they are, after all, just marking time.
I am left, having read these two books in quick succession, with the feeling that they are both about people needing people, and about how vital a part of being human it is to have relationships with others. Both books left me with a 'what next?' kind of feeling. Two very different, but equally thought provoking stories.

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