Tuesday 28 December 2004

You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched

"These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back"

These are the first words of one of the most haunting and bleakly beautiful books I have ever read: In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. It tells of the odyssey of 19 year old Anna Blume in a shattered, dystopian city. The city is a place where hope has all but died. Society as we would understand it has completely collapsed: food is scarce and prohibitively expensive (people are regularly lured into traps where they are butchered for meat), people scratch out a living by sifting through rubbish looking for anything worth salvaging, muggings are commonplace, no children are born, and governments only exist to collect human waste and corpses to burn to produce energy. It is a world where life is insufferable, and where the pursuit of death has become an industry; from euthanasia clinics where you can live out your dreams before the injection is administered, through to the cult of 'runners' who run through the city until they drop dead. Anna wanders through this blasted, hopeless landscape in a futile search for her lost brother.

It's a grim book with little hope, and yet I was gripped by it.

For all that this is a post-apocalyptic vision of the world, a world where all our certainties have been smashed, where life is a constant struggle to survive... it has given me a lot of food for thought - especially when we see tragedies on the scale of this earthquake, where the death toll is now 60,000 people and rising, and when I look around and I see the suffering happening in Darfur and in Iraq, and in the Middle East and in many other places across the globe.

"Life as we know it has ended, and yet no one is able to grasp what has taken its place ... On the one hand, you want to survive, to adapt, to the make the best of things as they are. But, on the other hand, to accomplish this seems to entail killing off all those things that once made you think of yourself as human ... In order to live, you must make yourself die."

The way that people are forced to behave in order to survive had some uncomfortable echoes for me of the way that humans treat other humans in this world, of man's inhumanity to man. On the one hand it's a dystopic vision of the future, but on the other hand some of it is frighteningly believable ... it is not set in the distant future, but in a recognisably Twentieth Century city (the book was published in 1987 - I read the city as New York).

It is a bleak book indeed, and Auster does not give his readers much hope for the future, but that is not to say that he gives us no hope at all. Throughout everything that happens to her, through all of the hardships she suffers in this city that attempts to brutalise her, Anna retains her capacity for love. Where there is love, there is hope.

Where there is love there is hope.

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