- The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard
Gollancz, 254 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 575 04152 8
- The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally
Hodder, 310 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 340 34154 8
- In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Secker, 244 pp, £10.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 436 34009 7
- The House of Hospitalities by Emma Tennant
Viking, 184 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 670 81501 2
After the autobiographical candour of Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard returns to his familiar austere impersonality with The Day of Creation. Superficially, this latest terminal vision recalls the doomed worlds of the author’s earlier Science Fiction, and at some points seems a close reworking of The Drought (1965). In that parched novel, the earth has ceased to produce rain because of radioactive waste and its waters are drying to produce a global dustbowl. In the last twenty years the inexorable advance of the Sahara has spared Ballard from having to invent his climatic catastrophe and gives his 1987 apocalyptic fable a more ominous edge of realism.
In the ‘dead heart of the African continent’ somewhere between Chad, the Sudan and the Central African Republic, Dr Mallory works for the WHO in an apparently futile search for water on the dried-up bed of Lake Kotto, a task in which he has little support from his employer and none at all from the local regime, headed by the thuggish Captain Kagwa. Ballard, as his admirers will know, frequently employs doctor heroes, perhaps the outcome of his own abortive medical career at Cambridge, a vocation which he gave up in order to write, doubtless thinking the sickness of the age had more need of the prophet than the physician. Mallory has given up Western medical practice because their populations ‘had failed to be sufficiently ill to meet certain bizarre needs of my own’. He came to Africa as a doctor, but now stays on as a hydrologist, or water-diviner.
With no more than preliminary scene-setting, Ballard sets up a criss-cross of haunting allusions to Marlowe in the heart of darkness, Moses who struck water from the rock, Mallory who climbed Everest for no better reason than its being there, and, of course, to Adam, paradise-loser. As Eve, there’s a Rhodesian widow, Nora Warrender, another piece of European debris. Once the owner of a menagerie of exotic animals, who have since escaped, Nora dreams of creating a new and reversed Eden in Africa, teeming with all species save one. Mallory has made love to her perfunctorily and she is raped by a large but indefinite number of Africans during the course of the novel. None of these experiences reconciles Nora to the male animal. On the fringe of things is a Japanese photographer, coldly covering Mallory’s activities for the world and for posterity.
The action proper opens with Mallory caught by General Harare, commander of a diseased rabble of revolutionaries. In the past he has treated the guerrillas, but now it seems they will kill him so as to deny the regime an asset. A 12-year-old girl with a wounded foot and an ulcerated mouth guards Mallory, armed with a rusty Lee Enfield that is to figure talismanically throughout the subsequent story. Mallory tries to escape, and the girl pulls the trigger. At this point it is plausible to assume an Incident-at-Owl-Creek twist. But as the written story tells us, the firing pin or cartridge fails and Mallory survives into a fugue of increasingly hyperreal experiences. The guerrillas are driven off by Kagwa, accompanied by a TV guru, Professor Sanger, who has flown in with fifty tons of (wholly useless) grain, donated by the German viewing public. Mallory’s murderous 12-year-old is caught, but he saves her life by perversely denying that she has anything to do with the guerrillas.
A little later, a bulldozer uproots an old blackened stump on the dry lake bed. It releases a trickle of water which swells to a flood, and eventually forms ‘the third Nile’. Mallory initially resents this river, which he buys from Kagwa for $1000 and promptly names after himself. He dams the Mallory to prevent its detritus of beer cans, used condoms and dead snakes from invading his pure but dry wells. His hastily thrown up earthworks break, killing the Japanese photographer. Her role is taken over by Sanger, who now follows Mallory everywhere with his video camera, making a secret record of events for Japanese television. Mallory is also followed by the 12-year-old girl, now identified as ‘Noon’, who has apparently chosen him as her future mate after some unspecified ordeal has been undergone.
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