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Recent reading: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

29 December 2010

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christmas for me has been a season for reading, as most members of the family give me books as Christmas presents, and so much of my blogging in this season is about books I’ve been reading. This Christmas Val and I gave each other similar books, those dystopian “end of civilisation” books, describing the life of survivors after some disaster has wiped out most of the human race. It’s a genre on its own, and two of my favourites in the genre are A canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and Earth abides by George Stewart.

Unlike those two, which describe some form of community, The road describes the journey of a father and son, whose main object is to avoid most of the humans they meet. One is not told their names or ages, though the boy appears to be about 6-8 years old, and there are hints that he was born after the disaster, and so had known no other life. Their location isn’t described either, though it is somewhere in the northern hemisphere, since they are travelling southwards in the hope of finding somewhere warmer to survive the winter, a global nuclear winter, with polluted air and water. There are no birds, no farm animals, and they live as scavengers, looking for unlooted stores of food and clothing, and trying to hide from other human beings they encounter, most of whom have turned to slavery and cannibalism.

So the book is basically about the journey, a journey without a destination, just the hope of finding somewhere warmer, where survival may be a little easier, and perhaps an even fainter hope of finding a human community. The father tells the son that there are “good guys” somewhere, whom they hope to find, but none of the few people they meet appear to fall into that category, in most cases they don’t even try to find out, avoiding human contact as far as possible, because they think that all are “bad guys”, which they usually turn out to be. The people and places have no names, because names are a sign of human community, and there is no human community left, other than war bands of raiders in the new Dark Ages.

So though it is a post-cataclysm book, it reminded me of another book I read many years ago, Sammy going south by W.H. Canaway. It is about an English boy, Sammy Hartland, who lives with his parents in Egypt, and is orphaned when his parents are killed in a bombing raid. When they were alive they had talked of sending him to his aunt Jane in Durban until the crisis was over, and so he sets out on his own, knowing that Durban is somewhere in the south. The similarity is simply in the need to travel south. Sammy Hartland encounters a lot of human beings, some of whom help him, and others who seek to exploit him for their own financial or emotional gain. And so The road is simply about the journey, with the travellers having to rely on their own resources, and what they can scavenge on the way. Whatever disaster caused their present plight is irrelevant. The past is irrelevant, the future vague and uncertain. Both are erased by the need to survive for just one more day, and the need for survival erases human compassion. The father becomes one of the “bad guys” he fears, treating others as he fears they will treat him. And the son alone retains a vestige of human compassion.

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