What happens when the society that we know of - with all its institutions, systems, technology, knowledge and history - crumbles? What is left, when governments or the ruling class become merely (or quite aptly), Talkers - "...those people above us who spent their lives in their eternal and interminable conferences, talking about what was happening, what should happen, what they fondly hoped they could make happen - but of course never did...". What happens then to the proudly held civilisation of ours?
Anarchy, barbarism, regression, values, survival, dystopia, atrophy, nature - these are the major themes which were dealt with in Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor. The novel is set in an indeterminate period of chaos and instability in the future, prophetic of times that might soon befall humankind. It is written in a very bleak and dark tone, and there's almost a sense of losing hope, during certain points of the novel.
We watch and see the world through the eyes of a middle-aged woman, a survivor of "it". Through her narration, we are transported to her world - where communications have failed, where there's a shortage of food supply, and where hordes of people are gathering into gangs or tribes at the pavement below to migrate to (supposedly) greener pastures, slowly turning the city which she lives in into yet another ghost town.
A girl with her pet dog/cat is brought to her one day, and left in her care. The girl, Emily becomes her link to the outside world, and we see a reversal of traditional roles as it soon becomes clear that Emily is as capable, if not better, than the narrator at surviving the harsh brutalities of the 'new world'. She soon grows up to be a young woman (a teenager by our definition), and becomes part of the life on the pavements. She falls in love with one of the young chieftains, Gerald, and takes on a motherly role to his tribe - children or other teenagers who have been abandoned or separated from their families. The writer, through the relationships between the various characters of the novel, explores the notion of love and loyalty, in times when the understanding of abstract nouns such as those have disappeared. We are in essence, witnessing a rebirth (however ironic) of the world, when all ideologies have collapsed, leaving in it, a void where humankind must once again come to terms with and conceive new understandings of reality - a period of "the ordinariness of the extraordinary".
It is a very postmodernist text, evident by the subversion of genres - fantasy and science fiction elements intertwine with realist narratives. The narrator at one point finds that she's able to cross into another realm from the wall in her living room. Here she finds fragments of the past, future, and rooms that signal of a different era, the past. She also sees glimpses of Emily's childhood through her visits to the world beyond, though the use of the word "beyond" is ironic because she's really regressing into the internal, a mere projection of the self she desires but cannot have.
Apart from that, this novel is also very critical of the ways in which we're living our lives right now. It seems to me that the writer is referring to the period which we exist in now, as the Age of Affluence:
"Of course, such contriving and patching and making do began to parallel our ordinary living, our affluence and waste and overeating, at a very early stage, long before the time of which I am writing now. We were all experts at making a great deal out of very little, even while we all still had a lot, and were still being incited by advertisements to spend and use and discard."
Rubbish dumps of the past are prized possessions during the narrator's time, and the discovery of one is almost a cause for celebration as many useful things can then be excavated from it. It really makes us reflect upon the consumerist habits that are ingrained in each of us the moment we were born. And it also makes you think the vanity inherent in human beings to put our intelligence and emotions at such high regards:
"Our emotional life is shared with the animals; we flatter ourselves that human emotions are so much more complicated than theirs. Perhaps the only emotion not known to a cat or a dog is romantic love, all pining and yearning and 'give me, give me'. What was Hugo's love for Emily but that? As for thoughts, our intellectual apparatus, our rationalisms and our logics and our deductions and so on, it can be said with absolute certainty that dogs and cats and monkeys cannot make a rocket to fly to the moon or weave artificial dress materials out of the by-products of petroleum, but as we sit in the ruins of this variety of intelligence, it is hard to give it much value: I suppose we are under-valuing it now as we over-valued it then. It will have to find a place: I believe a pretty low place, at that.
I think all this time, human beings have been watched by creatures whose perceptions and understanding have been so far in advance of anything we have been able to accept, because of our vanity, that we would be appalled if we were able to know, would be humiliated. We have been living them as blundering, blind, callous, cruel murderers and torturers, and they have watched and known us. And this is the reason we refused to acknowledge the intelligence of the creatures that surround us: the shock to our amour proper would be too much, the judgement we would have to make on ourselves too horrible, it is exactly the same process that can make someone go on and on committing a crime, or a cruelty, knowing it: the stopping and having to see what has been done would be too painful, one cannot face it."
I'm very inclined to believe that the author wants us to see that we've been placing too much importance on progress at the price of nature, which has been there to give us all that we ever need to survive since the very beginning. By forsaking it (nature) they (or we) have evidently carved a coffin for humanity and civilisation. In that way, she questions also, the existing institutions that we have in place which makes the world an ideal habitat for the perpetuations of wrong ideals.
In conclusion, this is a terribly interesting and astonishing, but difficult read. Do pick up the book if you've got some spare time to deconstruct the messages, and ponder over them after you have. Don't miss it if you do...