What do you do when you have written a highly acclaimed novel that not only sheds light on the horrors of war, but which also sheds light on the roots of your earlier work? Well, if you are J G Ballard, you go back to those roots and reprise your earliest novels. But you do so with a whole new level of understanding and skill.
On the surface, The Day Of Creation belongs with Ballard’s first four (or three, as he would have it) novels. It does have a great deal in common with The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World (which in turn were born out of earlier short stories and The Wind From Nowhere). The world and society of the novels is dysfunctional. The central character is a doctor. The central character is an outsider on many levels, not least because of their descent into psychosis. And the whole thing is deeply symbolic. This might not sound like a particularly gripping read, but Ballard had an extra trick up his sleeve. He could tell a good story. And The Day of Creation goes well beyond those earlier works in terms of content and style.
Set in sub-Saharan Africa, the book tells of how a new river appears in the arid landscape and the effects it has on the lives of those who live close by. Mallory, the central character and local WHO doctor, has already been drilling in a dry lake bed to see if he can find water. The town where he lives has been deserted by most of its inhabitants because of a war between a guerrilla group and government forces. It is an uneasy dynamic that is thrown into chaos when a distant earthquake alters the level of a buried aquifer and releases water.
Mallory, already on the edge of sanity, is somehow convinced he has created the river. Torn between the desire to irrigate the Sahara and to destroy the river that will flood his drilling project, he steals an abandoned car ferry and sails upriver to seek its source. Chased by government forces, harried by a band of armed women, starving, diseased, he is driven by some inner force he does not understand. His only true companion is a young rebel soldier he calls Noon.
Whilst everyone else assumes his motives to be sexual, his relationship with the girl soldier is much more complex and forms one of the central strands of the book. It is developed with great subtlety because whilst it is a genuine relationship between two people, it also carries a huge weight of symbolism about the way in which Africa has been treated by outsiders and its own people. The river (named the Mallory), which symbolises Mallory’s own journey is a second strand that examines the relationship of people with the land and how they treat themselves.
The symbolism is powerful. The first time I read the book, I had vivid, potent dreams, much as many of Ballard’s early protagonists. They were not disturbing, but the book clearly unlocked something in me at the time. Whilst I was not affected in the same way this time (only the second time I have read this book), it did open many more layers to me. It is certainly difficult to avoid drawn parallels between the book and real events in Africa today, both sub-Saharan and Mediterranean parts of the continent. But life has provided more experience and Mallory’s search for himself, his journey back to his own beginnings, his search for love and a way to reconcile and heal all that he sees as awry and painful in the world make much more sense.
Ballard’s writing is also more assured. He was always a good writer, but there is a fluency about this work that is deceptive. It seems straightforward, less exotic than some of his earlier works, yet it manages to be more poetic and powerful as a result. And the final sentence, after everything has been lost, resonates not just with that loss, but with longing and hope, and with all the layers of meaning inherent in the book: ‘Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will also return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart.’