Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Book review: Landlocked, Doris Lessing (1965)

No idea when or where I bought this book but it must’ve been second-hand, so it’s probably been in my collection for a decade at least. I was looking for something to read and picked this off the newly-loaded shelf of a downstairs bookcase. The old, worn bookcase I stripped of paint in about 1989. 

An age ago! Almost – but not quite forgotten – as is the story in ‘Landlocked’. The author’s focus is on male-female relations in a group of political activists in Rhodesia (which was what Zimbabwe was called before independence) but in the novel it’s shifted slightly off-centre and called “Zambesia”. The writing is very good and you get a keen sense of Martha – the protagonist – as she goes about her business, though it’s not clear how she earns her money. 

It’s also hard to classify this novel. Is it a coming-of-age story? A romance? A political roman a clef? I was left wondering where the centre of the thing was located. Finding it might’ve seemed hard because the novel is one of a series of five – you do get the impression, reading ‘Landlocked’, that the centre of gravity might be situated in another book. 

History serves to anchor the narrative at tonic points and while the plot is flimsier than it should be for a novel of this length the characterisation is excellent. As Martha goes about her business you start to get a feel for who she is and what she’s capable of. She’s amenable to external suasion, for a start, which you’d think would put her at a disadvantage, but such people are often more flexible and tend to nurture stronger relations than natural-born leaders or excessively competitive individuals. Martha’s not like this at all. She’s caught in a web of relations that sustain her and that she feeds with her good nature and guilelessness. And her intelligence. You wonder how the book will play out but even after reading a few dozen pages I was engrossed by this clever novel of manners masquerading as a novel of ideas.

The plot is not always clear but in short the book is about a group of socialists working to foment revolution. How this happens is not always clear – “To the barricades!” is less relevant to the case than “Shall I do the typing?” – but things are happening all the while Martha Quest (Matty to people who know her) is engaged in a romance or looking after her carer mother. 

The backbone of the book is colonialism, and it takes a very fine-grained view of proceedings, zeroing in on individuals caught up in the disruptions that eventually result from years of activism by the group – which includes Martha’s husband Anton (a German), Thomas (a Polish Jew), Athen (a Greek), and others. The women are the main topic, and while Marjorie is only generally sketched in, Maisie is more fully-rounded (literally!).

There are three deaths of characters the reader gets to know, and while there is violence it’s mainly suppressed by manners and the rule of law. 

Death involves others – not the least being Africans who must dig the grave. Africa is represented most often by its vegetation – though the jacaranda (a South American import) is also present – and at the end you get one of the rare situational glances, during which the author turns her attention to the continent in which her drama is set. At this point you feel the size of the land breathing on the outskirts of your consciousness, how the rain scuds on low clouds across the veld to drop its bounty here and there, missing one township while soaking the next.

At this point in the novel you also get a date marker. Rare, these, but here it serves to set in stone a revolutionary vision. It also bookends the action, which started at the precise end of WWII. The war features as a presence throughout most of the novel, a malign thing that serves to form people’s attitudes toward those around them, and also to form for the reader’s benefit the delineations of character. Revelations of events that had transpired in Russia appear as a plot device during the course of the narrative, and this also adds to the dimensioning Lessing performs in order to bridge the divide between the reader and her creations. You get to feel the size of Thomas’ soul or Martha’s by how they react to the news of Russia’s shame. 

Likewise at the end. But I won’t tell you what that second global event is. You’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself.

No comments: