Jul 28, 2008

Notes on The Road

Camus, beckett, orwell, burgess, atwood and sometimes even joseph conrad. Cormac mcarthy’s 2007 pulitzer prize winning ‘the road’ reminded me of the works of the above authors & then some more. Western authors have been preoccupied with the end of the world & I don’t think mcarthy’s novel is unique for the way he treats the same. No, he pretty much says what we’d have imagined from any able author. It is in the way he goes about describing the savage destruction that follows such end that the novel derives its power, “The mummied dead everywhere. Their flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug & taut as wires. …they were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for their shoes were long since stolen.” Not only does a sense of ‘nothingness’ pervade the tale, it’s accompanied by a continuous sense of foreboding, threat & danger for this is a world where houses and supermarkets have been ransacked and abandoned by the remaining survivors; shriveled bodies lie, unburied, in aabndoned homes; packs of men in gas masks wielding pipes roam the countryside, cannibalizing and raping. It is a nightmare world in which the little boy’s sudden joy at discovering dungeon full of naked people quickly turns into the terrifying realisation that they are captives, fodder for cannibilsation. He asks anxiously, "We wouldn't ever eat anybody, would we?" His question shows the doubts that gnaw deep. He knows his father to be a fair & loving man & yet in the nightmare world they exhibit there is only that much he can take for granted, including his father's good nature. It’s as if the very foundations of piety & compassion have been uprooted for all times & the old order that celebrated & rewarded goodness has been cast aside.

An unknown holocaust, nuclear probably, has laid to waste all of humanity. So much so that when the man comes across an old newspaper, "the frailty of everything revealed at last. Old & troublng issues resolved into nothingness & night........ The curious news, the quaint concerns" are exposed for what they currently are. Nothing, in a sea of eternal nothingness.

The apocalypse itself is dismissed easily: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions.” This Orwellian reference is all we are offered. Why or how it happened is never revealed. Faced with such devastation, it’s cause is irrelevant. Another detail is cleverly inserted. This was when the boy was born & for all meaningful purposes, beauty, brotherhood & love are things he has never witnessed & ought to have no idea of. But it is not so. He is the strongest voice of reason & compassion in the novel & must clearly have imbibed these from the father & therein lies the magic of Mcarthy’s book. The boy has no early refernces of humanity to guide him save from what his father has taught.The man's tragedy is of a different order. He still struggles with the memory of a world that he once knew - “the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. The sacred idion shorn of its referneces & so of its reality."

While the macabre vision is unremmitting in its impact, it is balanced & soothed by the bond between the man & his son, who is the metaphorical carrier of the flame, “you have to carry the fire." If there is no hope in this new order, the man is unshakable in his faith that they have to carry on till they reach the coast. What is truly amazing is the way we wish him success despite our comprehension that nothing much may change even when they reach their destination. It’s no promised land for sure & no hope has been dangled before us. Yet, for the man it is imperative that they boy carry on, even when he knows his own end is near:

"Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take chances. ....you have to carry the fire.
i dont know how to."
yes you do.
is it real? the fire?
yes it is.
where is it? i dont know where it is.
yes you do. it's inside you. it was always there. i can see it.”

The number of things he does for the boy, the sheer effort that goes into it - whether it is washing the dried blood frm his hair at the end of a long & tiring day, wrapping his feet in the blue tarp which is their only means of shelter, offering him the last bit of cocoa, or"kicking holes in the sand for the boys hip & shoulders where he would sleep & he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it" - it is these moments that balance this harsh & biting narrative of endless starvation, hardships, death & devastation.

Early on in the novel when he fears they may be attacked & raped or cannibalized by the marauders, the man still cannot bring himself to shoot his son as he’d intended. Even here his first thought is always for the son. "No crying now. You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth & point it up. Do it quick & hard." This is where the levy is breached; that it has come to this, after all that they have been through. This abject hoplessness is what makes 'The Road' so unbearable & yet so uplifting. That a father has to say this to his son, this most perverted reversal of filial responsibility, is what lends a burning pain & rage to this novel. Yet there is hope for he says. "I was going to run. To try & lead them away. But i cant leave you." To kill the boy would be to accept defeat; to deny that even when the external markers of civilisation are long gone, there is a Being that justifies goodness and humanity & a moral code that prohibits stealing, that makes eating ones own kind a heinous act, no matter how compelling the circumstances. It is only right that he belives, “That the child was his only warrant. ..if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” To witness such beauty in language is nothing short of a miracle.

As the man painstakingly carries on the Sisyphian struggle for existence & meaning in an irrational & Godless universe, he knows there are some ‘good guys’ left & to find them is the journey that comprises his life. He knows that danger & barbarity are never far behind & yet those are not the things he has schooled his son about. To leave the world a better place than you found it, to make even a grain of difference, marks the distance between the beginning & the end. When the boy plays his make shift flute, it’s left to us to decide whether it’s “a formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.'' This extraordinary fable has shown us which one it is.

No comments: