So we meet Makepeace Hatfield, our hero and survivor of this beautifully written dystopian novel. We’re in the far north (duh), somewhere in the Siberian taiga where Makepeace is the self-appointed law for the few survivors and refugees from a destroyed planet. Civilization as we know it has been wiped out by our own greed and foolishness. So much has been lost. This is the overarching theme of the novel. Books moulder or are burned for fuel, technology is obsolete (except guns), the vast knowledge of human history and learning wiped away. Some people, despite their subsistence existence, still “hold” book learning but no one really cares nor is there anyway to “use” it. Others, like Makepeace, can vaguely recall what werer once vast areas of human intellectual accomplishment, like astronomy or even the names of the constellations:
The sky was becoming a page of lost language. Things as a race we’d witnessed and named forever were being blotted out of existence forever.
Makepeace is a survivor, but a lonely one, and one with consciousness of what has been lost:
I thought I was born into a young world which was aging before my eyes. But my family came here when the world was already old. I was born in the oldest world there was. It was a world like a beaten horse, limping with old injuries and set on throwing its rider.
A glimpse of a lone airplane flying over suggests that there may yet be someone or somewhere that human learning has not been completely lost, so Makepeace heads out on a journey to find out. There is plenty of brutality in the novel, suffering, disease, sadness, despair. Still, Makepeace is a compelling narrative voice, and one that Theroux gives a sort of folksy Emersonian pithiness to:
There’s plenty of things I’d like to unknow, but you can’t fake innocence.
Everyone expects to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.
I really loved these little observations sprinkled among the action. It made Makepeace such a great character–one of action and reflection. I’m not typically a reader of the dystopian genre and probably would have found the book much less enjoyable had the main character not been so interesting–and surprising. There’s a big reveal that I’m not revealing that really makes the whole novel sing. Read!