In the time of Nero, a Roman historian has been given the task of unravelling a collection of documents purporting to tell the true origin of humankind. According to this history, humanity began with a colony of water-bound women in the shadow of a great cave by the sea, known only as The Cleft - a name by which they also knew themselves, in reference to their common anatomy. But after unknown generations of women spontaneously giving birth to women, the Clefts begin to give birth to more and more "Monsters", human like creatures with a common deformity: the first males.
The Cleft is the last book on the list, and once again, it's not really like any of the other books I've read. For starters, Lessing is telling not just a story of her own devising, but an alternate origin story for the human race; what's more, she's writing in the specific voice of not just any historian, but one from a specific era (Nero's reign lasted 14 years, and if I were more of a Roman scholar I'm sure I could have a stab at the specific year from comments made by the historian in the book).
This narrative decision is interesting for a number of reasons: for starters, it means the story of how all humans began in a society composed only of women is told by a man, and quite a sympathetic one. As in Atwood's The Blind Assassin, the framing narrative has a story of its own, though here our experience of the historian's life is slight. Perhaps more importantly, choosing a Roman historian allows a perspective that is both scholarly and yet credulous, something a more modern choice of narrator would not allow.
That's not to say that our historian isn't critical; he often discusses the material he has to work with, wondering how accurate it can be given its oral distribution, and how much his understanding is dependent on concepts that did not exist for the Clefts. He editorialises about the first rape - also the first (adult) murder - not excusing it, but trying to understand how the first males would have understood it. Later, when the first consensual sex occurs, he is prompted to one of the longest asides in the book, explaining the personal experience that led him to interpret the event through the first realisation of gender in children. He frequently explains when he is attributing what he feels are reasonable emotions where none are recorded.
The origin story itself is fascinating, though like the most interesting such stories there are a lot of questions left unanswered. The history begins, naturally enough, with the Clefts and their society; the question of where they came from is left alone. The story is given a great deal of weight by the historian's conflicting sources, though in the main the stories agree. As a result its not a pretty tale, nor one with clear heroes or villains. The Clefts are, at first, terribly cruel to the newborn males, whom they term Monsters. They leave them on the "Killing Rock" on the top of the Cleft, where they are supposed eaten by eagles, and disfigured many of them, pulling or cutting off their penises. Though this is terrible, the men are not victims for long, committing rape and murder of the first Cleft to find their secret society away from the shore. And so the story goes, each side making mistakes and committing terrible acts, while all the while the younger members of each group come to understand that they somehow need each other.
It's a fascinating tale, and even though by the end the men seem to be largely in the wrong, its an iconic kind of wrong; they long for adventure and newness, and the unspoken effect of this drive - aside from the heartache it causes the women they leave behind - is that they drove society away from its simple beginnings towards the success of the Roman era. The men of the story exhibit traits that have come to define "male": they behave like adolescents, thinking more of desires and goals, understanding little of consequences. The story is largely bereft of supernatural elements, the only really classic mythological tropes being the portrayal of animals: the young Monsters are rescued by giant eagles, who carry them away from the Killing Rock to a safe place, and they manage to suckle the newborn Monsters on friendly does. (The historian himself draws a comparison with the myth of the founding of Rome, with the wolf who suckles Romulus and Remus.)
In the end, The Cleft feels like a "real" creation story, and like such stories it provokes as many questions as it answers. It's ending leaves no clue as to how the early humans, finally beginning to properly integrate men and women into one society, progress to what we would know as civilisation. There's also never much of a clue as to where these human beginnings occur, though the historian speculates it must have been on an island.
It feels somehow just right that the Bunch of Authors journey should end with an origin story, since by now this blog has a new beginning too. I'm going to keep blogging about the books I read (there are two more coming up very soon), and I hope you'll stay with me.
Page count: 260
Book's title mentioned on page: 9
Best name encountered: Maire and Astre are two of the few named characters; special mention to Horsa, since it's almost the same name as the protagonist of another book I'm reading, Consider Phlebas
New words: None (the language is purposefully simple)
Inner Five-year-old score: 2 (I loved mythology as a kid, but I think I would have preferred the kind with gullible giants and wicked dragons)
Fun Wikipedia fact: Despite being almost universally pigeon-holed as a feminist author, Lessing is greatly disillusioned with mainstream feminist movement, concluding that they "want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women". (Perhaps she should talk with bell hooks?)