Books · Colonisation · Gender · Political · Whiteness & racism

Born in Zambesia

Martha Quest (Children of Violence, #1)Martha Quest by Doris Lessing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are caught in the flow of Martha’s psychological time. Years pass in a treacly flood of hot, irritated afternoons, a single moment of transcendent commune with the universe lasts hours (and takes up several pages), and busy days in the city expand to fill decades with a handful of weeks. I can imagine readers complaining about ‘pace’ since little happens, but the book engages me, Martha’s time is the slow river of story I share gladly with her, and I am happy to swim leisurely in her company

I can also imagine readers complaining that Martha is unlikeable. I cringed at pride wounded so easily it condemns Martha to bouts of even deeper loneliness, and again at her delusion of having finished her rebel self-education. But I cringed because I recognised myself and the teens I know, and I loved Martha because I love myself and my young acquaintances. If I have a criticism of the character, it’s that Lessing is too harsh on her avatar. The whole book is flavoured with a bitterness and rage at herself (because I cannot but think Martha is herself – she knows her too miserably well) as well as at her colonist parents and their generation, at the disease of whiteness that gives Martha a poisonous sense of entitlement, that trammels and decays and impoverishes all their lives. Yet it sings, it sings its exotic fury and familiar frustration. Those turns of phrase! The homage of the wolves. And when the natural world enters it is a poem that soothes the heart; the thunder mutters.

Distance is created between Martha and the world by the use of her name, always Matty or Miss Quest to others, always Martha to the reader. I think the only exception is the Cohen bothers, who offer her the most vital of all gifts, recognition. The most excruciating thing about her is that Martha responds weakly or negatively to most of the attempts made to reach out to her, but while I have my head in my hands over this, I’m learning the lesson: keep reaching out. Reach out gently but relentlessly. Keep holding out that hand, keep offering that recognition, for as long as you possibly can afford. Because we are all of us irrational and hampered and prone to making decisions we know in our bones are terrible. Oh, if I could have back and live again the years of my life between sixteen and twenty, when I too (despite having parents entirely unlike Martha’s, who instead of swaddling my spirit and cramping my mind, taught me joy and set me free) was pulled helplessly by forces I perceived to be outside me, but were actually my socialisation!

I feel that Lessing is cultivating shoots of political awareness in this phase of Martha’s story to bear fruit later. Martha’s political attitudes are skilfully integrated into both the fraught surface formed by action, relationships and psychological focus, and the agitated background where destructive human geographies rot in racial (anti-black and anti-Semitic) and national bigotry and gender hierarchies. Lessing draws each of these very distinct dynamics in multiple sketches. Martha’s interrogation by a Dutch patriarch, and the hideous scene in the Club where the wolves force a black waiter to dance are only the seismic shocks of constantly building tensions released. Lessing’s discussion of the speech of white bodies and eyes (windows on poisoned souls) also develops the sense of this environment very subtley. Although Martha is influenced and affected by the atmospheres that often disgust her, she is able to effect some opposition by pressing the men into talking with her genuinely instead of in the ‘jargon’ of Club convention.

This human scene is contrasted with the sublime lyrical and epic natural world and the possibilities of ‘illumination’ it offers (with its changing light). Martha glimpses liberation in landscape, but she is cut off from it for the moment. The gulf Lessing allows between people and land reflects colonial visioning of land as property to be taken and owned and nature to be conquered and used, its inhabitants put to work or casually killed for meat. It struck me that Martha resolved not to kill deer ever again when she shared a moment of transcendence with them, but that she later breaks the promise. For me this epitomises her lumpy, partial and constantly shifting critical resistance to colonial (un)consciousness. Mud, I think, is a crucial signifier; the dreaded touch of mud, of the earth itself, actually grants Martha some healing, nourishing experiences. I relate this to another scene when Martha’s relaxed co-worker is pictured sweating and marked by dust, but these ‘flaws’ enhance her appearance in Martha’s eyes. Something is germinating here and it might be the seeds of feminist decolonisation…

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3 thoughts on “Born in Zambesia

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