Poison: Apocalypse Now

Internet hanging today and I’m struggling to connect. I feel a knot in my stomach and it probably doesn’t help that I’ve just read Henrietta Rose-Innes’ prize-winning short story Poison over at Guardian Books. (The Caine prize is for the best short-story written in English by an African writer.)

Poison is apocalyptic and impersonal. Well-written and I can imagine that petrol station she describes very well. There’s a similar one just down the N2 from here. It is a model of efficiency and consumer-friendliness but I wonder what it would be like if there was a shortage of petrol and everyone was scrambling to get out of the city (as in her story). Every time I stop in there for some Wimpy coffee or fill up on the way to a weekend away I’ll probably be reminded of Lynn, the resigned and rather helpless heroine (not completely resigned, she is also resourceful) who is waiting for the emergency men to come and save her with their sirens and flashing lights and shiny vests. There’s clearly a metaphor waiting to be unpacked here (with political and social and environmental overtones).

But the story left me dissatisfied, perhaps because I was looking for an example of empathy and there’s none to be had in that apocalyptic landscape. Clearly that could be seen as a sign of the ‘new’ South Africa. Not much empathy. And not much of a plan other than waiting around to be rescued by someone else. If that doesn’t work out she’ll take a rusty bicycle and ride off to find something else.

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4 Responses to Poison: Apocalypse Now

  1. Jarrett says:

    The whole idea of waiting to be rescued sounds more absurd the longer one ponders it. Almost as futile as waiting for inspiration.

  2. couchtrip says:

    Jarrett – hi and welcome. I don’t know if it’s absurd but it’s very child-like. “If we stay here long enough our parents will come and find us and take us home” sort of idea. At some point we realise that we have to be our own parents and sort out our own mess.

  3. Courtney says:

    very similar struggle that I had with The Road by McCarthy – it left me feeling quite desolate even while I was able to recognize its brilliance. The possibility of a post-apocolyptic world is quite beyond imagining so when writers do manage to make it feel possible, I think some anxiety as a reaction is natural.

  4. Litlove says:

    Literature is odd, isn’t it, in the way it makes us uneasy as a sign of its competence. I wonder whether you have considered adding Camus’ L’Etranger to your list of books. Possibly the most un-empathetic character in literature, and yet his transformation in prison could be read as a coming to terms with the ‘tender indifference of the world’ that he talks about.

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