The Cleft by Doris Lessing

INDEPENDENT                   January 2007 

The Cleft
by Doris Lessing
(4th Estate £16.99)

A Roman senator observes the confrontation between a male and a female slave.  The man is clumsy, the woman furious;  the woman penitent, the man contemptuous.  The man walks off, certain to return to her bed later that night, a scene that sums up the eternal battle of the sexes.

The senator is meanwhile studying a cache of material purporting to tell the story of our first ancestors, an all-female tribe known as the Clefts.  So contentious are the documents that they have been labelled ‘Strictly Secret’ and the senator fears that should his account of them ever be published, it would be attacked and derided.

Doris Lessing has been canny enough to anticipate many potential criticisms of her latest novel in the text.  In a prefatory note, she reveals that it was inspired by a recent scientific claim that ‘the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought.’

So she portrays a group of near-amphibious women who have no need of men since they are impregnated by a fertile wind or a wave or the moon.  It is, however, no sentimentalised feminist utopia, for the women behave brutally, mutilating male babies before placing them, along with twins and the handicapped, on a rock for eagles to devour.

The eagles turn out to be the males’ allies, transporting them to the forest where they are suckled by does.  The adult males understandably view the women with suspicion until one intrepid Cleft ventures into the enemy camp and the first fully human baby is born.

As a result, tensions fester among the Clefts between the Ancient Shes who cling to the old ways and younger women who favour relations with the men.  Both sexes develop a sense of vulnerability, hence their constant refrain:  ‘How few we are, how easily we die.’  With harmony finally established, the Squirts (as the males are now called) explore the island, leaving the Clefts resentful and unfulfilled.

Lessing’s treatment of gender conflict is far more even-handed than the cover blurb with its reference to ‘a mythical society free from sexual intrigue, free from jealousies… free from men,’ might suggest.  The Clefts are more devious and vicious than the Squirts, as well as less inventive, adventurous and visionary.  The Squirts, surprisingly, are more compassionate, both to an Ancient She left stranded and to a crying child.  Indeed, the only area in which the Clefts show themselves superior is that of language.

The Cleft is neither a conventional nor an easy novel.  Apart from fleeting allusions to the senator’s own family, there are no identifiable characters.  The chief personages of the second part, the Cleft Maronna and Squirt Horsa, are types and, by the senator’s own admission, may well be amalgams of various leaders.  Likewise, there is no narrative development but rather an attempt to unravel a series of more or less unreliable myths.

The richest strand of the novel is its discourse on history.  Lessing skilfully manipulates multiple perspectives as she portrays the senator grappling with imperfect chronicles of events which took place at the dawn of time.  The predominant tone is speculative as the senator grapples with the ancient and alien consciousness, admitting that ‘I find it hard to imagine words Horsa would use.’

Although it lacks the vision and energy of Lessing’s recent futuristic novels about General Dann, The Cleft is a bold, inventive and challenging book from a writer who continues to enlighten and astonish as she approaches her tenth decade.