My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
In his Pulitzer winning novel of 2007, Cormac McCarthy follows a man and his young son as they make their way through the desolate wasteland of what used to be the United States of America. Disaster has struck Earth in the form of, presumably, a nuclear catastrophe, leaving behind a grey landscape completely overtaken by ash. The man and his boy are forced to wear masks or cover their faces with cloths to minimise the inhalation of the penetrating remains of the lost world. The two survivors perfectly complement their grim surroundings: two ragged, frail silhouettes, the picture of humanity’s disintegrating remains.
Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.
The story demands a merciless author and McCarthy is exactly that. In this apocalyptic scenario, death is at the centre of the stage in the roles of villain and hero. The characters wishing to escape it, wishing to embrace it. There are no animals left on the planet, no birds in the sky, no fish in the ocean, the forests a bleak and barren graveyard of burnt trees. And still, they trudge on, the unforgiving rain a whip on their backs that brings uncontrollable shivers only gone when exhaustion overcomes their weathered bodies. The man knows they won’t last another winter, so he is leading them South to the coast. They walk along the road pulling their precious, few belongings on a cart, blankets, a tarp for the rain, some canned goods. When the food is over, they walk the road famished.
The danger comes in the face of hungry men. The man and the boy have a pistol with two bullets. It is not for the men. They know what happens if they are captured. They witnessed it first hand when hunger led them to a locked basement, the horrors inside it unimaginable. The hungry men want food. People are food.
In all this devastation, the young boy is the only pure, good thing left in this world. While it is clear that he needs his father to survive, it is also true that the father needs his son to maintain his humanity. The author plays around with religious references, and the idea of God, that really is the last ray of hope of a man who looks at his skeletal son and weeps. The two remain nameless to the reader, as does the mother of the boy who could no longer face the reality of what would become of them.
“Sooner or later they will catch us and they will kill us. They will rape me. They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you won’t face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.”
The novel is a very interesting and very dark approach to a story that has been told multiple times by various people, the end of the world being a central theme in science fiction for decades, largely because it is not trying to be something fancy or different. McCarthy takes the simple road of writing an utterly realistic plot that follows a terrifyingly realisable disaster. The palpability of such a catastrophic event and what comes after it, are the two elements that make this book so powerful. Despite the atmospheric setting and a storyline narrating a pragmatic series of events, the book is filled with repetition and void of deep, character development. The characters never become distinct voices, they are really nothing special. A father who is strong and with good values, who loves his son and will do literally anything to keep him alive and give him happiness. A man who puts himself aside to offer his boy hope even when he, himself, is drained of it. On his side a young boy, to young for the ugliness of this world. And along goes a dialogue that repeats itself as the boy alternates between three sentences: “I’m cold.””I’m scared.””Are we going to die?” The man’s repertoire is more limited: “It’s okay.” These two characters are exactly the two people one would expect to read about in a story about a man and a boy wandering a destroyed earth.
The plot itself is also very basic. The two characters are descending from the North hoping to catch the warmer climate before winter kills them. On their way, they get in trouble, meet dangerous people and others that cannot harm them, get sick and get starved, miraculously come upon food and eventually keep going. The man quickly develops a cough, so the ending is fairly inevitable from then on. Still. one reads through the pages and as the end creeps closer, the question arises: Could this all possibly be a really bad dream?
In this dark world we’re living, stories like might be a little too possible for comfort. In this disquiet landscape of ashes and ruins, a man and a boy struggle to stay alive but, most importantly, to maintain their humanity. A quality that seems to be fading already, even before the destruction of all life and civilization.
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