For many years I’ve admired the science fiction works of J.G. Ballard, but I’d never got around to reading his non-sf novel The Day Of Creation (1987). I have now corrected that oversight.
The story is narrated by Dr Mallory, who is working for the WHO in an unnamed central African republic, near the River Kotto, yet on the edge of the encroaching Sahara. Inevitably, political and native unrest has overtaken him and the villagers in the guise of General Harare and his guerrillas. Mallory is about to be executed when the arrival of Captain Kagwa and his government troops rout the terrorists.
Shortly afterwards, as a landing strip is being bulldozed by Kagwa’s men, a huge tree is uprooted and water gushes out from the new hole. It doesn’t stop, but steadily floods the area, moving over the land. The blessing of this fresh water’s arrival affects Mallory strangely; he christens the new river with his name. Together with a twelve-year-old girl guerrilla he calls Noon, he escapes from Kagwa and commandeers a boat to head up the new river to find its source. Before long, he is also accompanied by a myopic filmmaker and his assistant.
We’re soon in the territory of an unreliable narrator. Perhaps the first clue is naming the ‘river’ after himself. ‘The River Mallory. I felt a curious pride. Yet knowing that it bore my name made me all the more determined to destroy it.’ (p71) He attempted to defeat the river at the place of its ‘mouth’ but failed, so realised he must find its source in the mountains. Yet, ambivalently, ‘I was eager to see how it would grow and change.’ (p99)
Over time, the river becomes polluted with the rubbish from civilization – fridges, bottles, condoms, and the usual detritus found in a Ballard disaster novel: ‘the aerosol can and the hair-dryer, lying in the sand like objects displayed in a museum of consumer archaeology’ (p220). Is the River Mallory a metaphor for something? Maybe: man creates, then spoils, sullies and ultimately destroys?
Ballard writes ‘literary’ novels – presumably books with profound psychological depth, a message and telling metaphors. Here, there are metaphors on virtually every page. A few are strained, such as ‘I stared at the sleek swollen surface of the river, like the fleshy body of a sleeping woman’ (p112), but the majority tend to work.
Here are a few of his many metaphors:
‘Fires burned fiercely across the surface of the lake, the convection currents sending up plumes of jewelled dust that ignited like the incandescent tails of immense white peacocks.’ (p20)
‘Angry voices crossed the airstrip, an altercation that moved like a skidding stylus from French to German to Sudanese.’ (p50)
‘… cadavers in the dissection room, laid out on the glass tables like the forgotten patrons of a Turkish bath who had waited too long for physicians…’ (p70)
‘The trees leaned over the water, their roots exposed like chandeliers…’ (p92)
‘The huge trees advanced towarfds the water like an army of knights…’ (p92)
‘Hours had slipped by in seconds, falling like dust through the open grilles of my mind.’ (p106)
‘Two metal aircraft hangars stood in the grass, their curved, pockmarked roofs like the hulls of collapsed Zeppelins.’ (p224)
It’s interesting that in one point Mallory refers to Noon as a teenager, yet she isn’t; she’s twelve, pre-pubescent. She is often naked, diving for fish to feed them on their journey up-river, and Mallory seems to lust after her, though whether anything happens in fact is debatable as he becomes disoriented by disease and malnutrition. Bordering on unsavoury territory, here, perhaps.
There are moments of humour, when Noon attempts to learn English by listening to cassette tapes, though these are all Marxist indoctrination lessons for Captain Kagwa! ‘Exploitation!’ becomes her word of warning of danger.
Ballard’s lush description of the jungle and the ‘dream river’, aided by rich metaphor create good visuals, though the characters seem less substantial than the environment, perhaps because they’re translated through the fragile sanity of the narrator. Imagery supplants plot; Ballard’s imagination is seen to be formidable through his revealing prose.