Her father caught her head and held it in his lap with his small hairy hands, to cover up her eyes, laughing and joking loudly about her mother hiding. She smelt the sickly odour of beer, and through it she smelt too – her head held down in the thick stuff of his trousers – the unwashed masculine smell she always associated with him. She struggled to get her head free, for she was half-suffocating, and her father held it down, laughing at her panic. And the other children laughed too. Screaming in her sleep she half-woke, fighting off the weight of sleep on her eyes, filled with the terror of the dream.
We know the end in the first paragraph: black servant kills mistress. The rest of the novel is a more or less straight road to that final destination, to the ramshackle house where the murderer has left so many clues. There were intimations before, but the above passages are the culprit’s fingerprints, strewn all around the house for us to see. Sigmund Freud is an accessory to murder; though we suspect he’s been involved in many others. For it is Freud who has taken off her dress, and removed her underwear. It is Sigmund who has fashioned the knife that has cut her up; her insides all over the living room’s couch... Yes, it is. It really is the revered doctor who has killed Mrs Mary Turner; goading Moses into the act by learned taunts and malicious subtleties.
It is rather odd that in a novel set at the time of the Second World War a professor who died when it started should be responsible for a death. It is especially so when we consider his age; not many murderers are that ancient... But we forget, and have lost our historical sense; we do not remember that he was still young and fresh, and very vigorous, inside the minds of the intellectuals of the period. His charisma just too powerful to resist; even in the late 1940s Doris Lessing was still besotted…
We saw the signs early on. Mary is an attractive woman but uninterested in sex. She escaped from the poverty of her family by going to live in the town. Highly efficient she is a valued employee, while her vitally and good sense is attractive to many; she is always socialising; and living in a shared house full of women she is a source of advice and sound sense. She knows many men, but the friendships stop at the bedroom door – she is an excellent companion, but that is all; there will be no skilled performances between her immaculately laid sheets. She grows older, and she remains popular, and her life is comfortable. And she enjoys it until… Until a minor crisis… It is the day she overhears her friends talking: she hears their pity and will not forget their judgement – she is a failure because she is not married; only half a woman by the norms and standard of their narrow lives.
It is now the obsession begins…
A woman who shouldn’t marry, marries a man who cannot afford her. The marriage is a disaster. The first night is full of prophecy. For Dick it is like ploughing obstinate soil; and at the end he is exhausted and full of despair. His marriage, just like his farm, is to be a failure; and somewhere inside he knows it, of that we are sure. He is a nice man, but he lacks the strength of mind to make a success of his life; flitting from one idea to another, one experiment after another, but never staying with anything for very long. All of his schemes are failures; and he is always looking for the next big thing, that one great success that will miraculously make him money; he is constantly on the watch for moneybags parachuting out of the sky... They never fall; and back luck follows him all over his farmlands; even into his marriage bed. She doesn’t like it, and with that, there is nothing he can do.
She scares him with her energy. Everything she does she does quickly, something that would take a morning for another farm wife takes her just an hour… soon she will have nothing to do. She should take over the farm, of course, and there are moments when she does so; but ultimately she needs to have a pride in him. His failure is so evident, but she needs to believe that at least in this, his livelihood, he is good and competent. This is her crucial mistake. Very quickly the energy subsides into inertia, into imagination and dreams; until there is nothing left but fantasy.
She lifted her head, with a startled jerk, thinking only that the trees were pressing in round the house, watching, waiting for the night. When she was gone, she thought, this house would be destroyed. It would be killed by the bush, which had always hated it, had always stood around it silently, waiting for the moment when it could advance and cover it, for ever, so that nothing remained… First would come the rats… And then the beetles… creepers would trail over the verandah and pull down the tins of plants, so that they crashed into pullulating masses of wet growth… A branch would nudge through the broken window panes, and slowly, slowly, the shoulders of trees would press against the brick, until at last it leaned and crumbled and fell, a helpless ruin, with sheets of rusting iron resting on the bushes, and under the tin, toads and wiry long worms like rats’ tails, and fat white worms, like slugs.
The doors of her house are open and the servant walks in. She falls into sexual oblivion, and her life becomes one long nightmare of sexual fulfilment and emotional terror – for she was broken the white man’s taboo.
A young Englishman has come out to take over the farm: a neighbour, Charlie Slatter, had convinced Turner he should leave. Suddenly the rules of the emotional game complicate exponentially. Moses, we find, is jealous. And it is jealousy that wields the murder weapon: sex and love, those perennial favourites, again.
By the end of the novel Rhodesia, its nature and its people, are turned into a metaphor: for sexual dysfunction; a test case for Freudian diagnosis. This is the only thing that dates it. That reflexive nod to the fashionable wisdom of the time: repression explains all. If only Mary had been an ordinary woman, accepted the normal pleasures of the flesh, lost herself joyously between the sheets every other Sunday, she would not have become an hysteric, eating the wrong apples from the wrong trees. If only she had been normal she would have remained a commanding woman, and kept the respect of the natives and the local elite. If only… Yes, if only she had overcome those childhood fantasies; allowing them to sink away into the activities of routine life, she would have been all right. But no, these images and ideas have remained inside her, ruts and boulders on the otherwise smooth surface of her neatly fashioned road. She is not strong enough to cope with nature. And yet she thrusts herself right in, into its open plains and wide brambles… Why leave the town to return to the poverty of the country; the riches of her present to the indigence of her past? Overcome by her situation she lashes out in the fields at a servant. Later, the same servant is employed as houseboy. The country is suddenly inside the house; and its power infects her:
She was unable to treat this boy as she had treated all the others, for always, at the back of her mind, was that moment of fear she had known just after she had hit him and thought he would attack her… Yet… there was nothing in his attitude to suggest that he remembered the incident.
To believe in the power of repression is to believe in the self-conscious mind’s pre-eminent dominance; that it has the power to control our thoughts and memories. Like the white farmer in his house on the hill, commanding the native African to work the land, the mind can normally subdue the body and its senses; or so the theory goes; at least it assumes this, implicitly. It is only when something goes wrong with that mind, when the world outside invades and conquers it, those few moments when you peak through the bedroom door and see your father and mother wrapped up in ecstasy, that your balance is lost; and suddenly the unconscious takes over; either repressing the memories or exaggerating them into wilful fantasy. In both cases the mind can no longer relax; becoming like a farmer who has lost his authority, but who has to still control his workers. The tensions increase, and the strain is ever greater, as more effort has to be employed to maintain an increasingly unstable equilibrium. The mind can break under such pressure. Here it does. Both Turner and Mary are mad at the end.
The Freudian interpretation is extended to Moses. It appears that he has also repressed that moment when Mary hit him with a whip. Is it the cause of his attraction to her, and the later jealousy and eventual murder? Is repression the culprit here too? Could he have pleaded this in court? I wonder what the response would have been – Freud is for Europeans only?
But what is the likelihood of Moses forgetting that incident. Think about it yourself. Contrary to Freud’s assertion it is usually the strongest, most powerful, events that leave the most impression; they stamp our memories with their presence, and are later called up, effortlessly when the situation demands. Think about this, and then try to think of the above scene from Moses’ perspective.
He has worked on the farm for a number of years, and he knows Turner likes him and thinks him a good worker. He also knows that Mary has a terrible reputation, a tyrant to her house servants, who always leave quickly. Turner asks him to serve as houseboy. Part of him might be pleased: it should be easier than working in the fields. But part of him might be ashamed, for he is leaving manly work. Another part of him will certainly be disappointed, for he is leaving his friends behind, and it is going to be very lonely in that house. He would think of the mistress and her terrible temper; the abuse he is now going to have to suffer. In a flash the incident would come back to him, as walks through the kitchen door. He thinks about it with some trepidation, one would imagine, as he enters the house, and meets her for the first time amongst her carpets and furniture; surrounded by her things and inside her realm. That incident once again fresh and vigorous inside his mind and body.
Here is a story that has nothing to do with sex and some dubious theories about the mind. It is about power and control, and a society slowly beginning to crumple because of the strain of exercising that control and illegitimate authority. Thus those constant complaints against the government; too weak and liberal it seems to keep the colony a going concern. It must be harsher, and more racist; it can never be savage enough; or so the white farmers believe... They want the government to do the hard work for them. For their society wants to settle down to enjoy the wealth that it has begun to accumulate. Their sons and daughters rewarded with a rich education; with lives a pleasant cocktail of liberal duty and soft bohemianism. By all rights life should becoming more comfortable, and they should be able to enjoy themselves by complaining about it – “life was harder in our day”, they should be able to say during their dinner parties; that always bizarre complaint, the asceticism of the sybarite. But things are not turning out that way. Under those soft sofas and big beds there are sharp edges; and never can you settle quite comfortably, always you are reminded of the country and your fragile presence there. You cannot relax, always must you hold the country down; and it seems to be getting harder; your will not as strong as it once was... The strain, easy when the society is young, becomes unbearable when it spreads into middle age.
Karl not Sigmund. Politics not sex. Change the characters!