11 JUNE 2005, Page 29

The good gang of four

Allan Massie

THE STORY OF GENERAL DANN AND MARA’S DAUGHTER, GRIOT AND THE SNOW DOG by Doris Lessing Fourth Estate, £15.99, pp. 282, ISBN 0007152809 ✆ £13.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 On the back cover of this novel I am quoted as calling Doris Lessing ‘the most incredible of writers’. No doubt the phrase appeared in a review. Perhaps I did indeed write it, and carelessly did not remark it when reading over the typescript. If so, my fault. It is of course nonsense. What I intended to say was that she is ‘the most credible of writers’. She commands belief.

This novel with its long title is a sequel to Mara and Dann, which I haven’t read. There are many references back to the earlier novel, but this one is complete, and completely satisfying, in itself. It is so well done, written with such zest, imagination, sympathy and intelligence, that my prejudice against the sort of novel it is was soon disarmed.

It’s set in a distant future, perhaps thousands of years ahead. Climate change has taken place. Europe (Yerrup) has long been uninhabitable, experiencing an ice age. Africa (Ifrik) is hot and dry. But the ice has long been melting, the waters are rising, cities lie under the seas, the northern littoral of Ifrik is swampy marshland. The arts of civilisation have long been lost. War is endemic, there are refugees everywhere. Massacres, enslavement, the burning of villages are common experiences.

Lessing does not, however, offer us another dystopia. On the contrary. The four characters of the title — two men, a child and a dog — are bound together in love and friendship, and are all admirable. The most interesting and complex is Dann himself, a charismatic figure who has experienced horrors, much suffering, and loss. He is a divided character, with his dark side. His awareness of the apparently endless cycle of war, misery and destruction brings him close to despair. Yet he goes on, seeking to rebuild or recapture the civilisation that has been destroyed.

The first part of the novel, telling of Dann’s wanderings, is a piece of compelling narrative, wonderfully imagined. It is an adventure story and a very good one. The second part, when he returns to the mysterious Centre, once the seat of power and the repository of a lost civilisation, is questioning, philosophical. Lessing never lets us forget that while men and women are capable of great things (which must include the recognition of virtue), we are always open to mischief and worse. Dann, everybody’s hero, yet knows that he keeps ‘locked up a part of himself that wanted to destroy him’. Don’t we all?

Something good is re-established. Griot, the loyal lieutenant, says to Dann, ‘We are an example to everyone. So there would be no advantage in attacking us, I mean, it would be too stupid. I am pretty sure there is no need to lose sleep over it.’ Dann is wiser. ‘Well, yes, Griot, it would certainly be stupid. I agree with you there.’ The snow dog, Ruff, is a delight. Wholly credible too.