Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.
Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.
Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.
That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.
Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).
Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.
The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.
One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –
Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.
It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.
The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.
Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.
Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece
All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…
The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .
The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.
This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.
Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.