A Journey to the Headwaters of the Vile : THE DAY OF CREATION<i> by J.G. Ballard (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 254 pp.) </i>
Middle-aged and as parched with acedia as the most tropically withered Graham Greene hero, Dr. Mallory runs a health station in an impoverished corner of Africa and drills for water beside a dry lake.
He has no patients, the population having fled because of fighting between government troops and nomad guerrillas from the desert northern province. His drilling is fruitless, and he risks execution by Harare, the guerrilla leader, who resents his search for water and his dream of a green Sahara. “The southern advance of the desert was Harare’s greatest ally.”
Mallory is about to leave--Capt. Kadwa, the devious leader of the government forces, also wants him out--when a bulldozer uproots a tree stump near the airstrip and water begins to flow from the cavity. Soon, it is a stream 10 feet wide; after a while, it has become a mighty river 900 feet across and 24 feet deep, filling the lake and utterly transforming the landscape.
This is the setting and start of J. G. Ballard’s complex parable, “The Day of Creation.” It pits Mallory the Creator--he regards himself as the father of his river and names it after himself--against his creation. And in a wider sense, it raises the paradox of human endeavor turning against its own sources and poisoning them; books that strip forests, irrigated deserts that fill up with shanty towns, junked cars, beer cans and war.
Even before the Mallory amounts to anything, Mallory finds that others expect to move in on it. He is furious when he sees one person filling a water bottle, and another, a soup ladle. While it is still only a stream, he pays Capt. Kadwa $1,000 for rights; but once it is a river, Kadwa decides to use it as the centerpiece of an independent state that he will be in charge of.
Mallory steals a beached ferryboat and sets off upriver. He is seeking its source and, when he finds it, he plans to destroy it, preferring to kill what he has created rather than see it get away from him. His companion is a mysterious African girl, Noon, who helps him pilot the boat through marshes and past reefs, and who functions as a combination of water spirit, river guardian, and Mallory’s elusive muse and perhaps lover.
It is an inverted, deformed grail quest. The river represents the purity of an idea; and the idea has been corrupted. The corruption turns literal part way upstream, where Harare and his followers have diverted the waters and opened up a farmland settlement that turns into a pestilent sewer. Mallory’s obsession represents purity, in one respect, but it also represents the naked and egoistic mania of the visionary.
At the end, with the contaminated river once more drying out, Noon suddenly aging and vanishing--as an ideal ages and vanishes--and the defeated Mallory back where he started, he reflects:
“Solely by accident I had created a great river that had brought life to the waiting desert. But I had become so obsessed by myself that I had seen the Mallory as a rival, and measured its currents against my own ambition. Like a child, I had wanted to destroy the river, afraid that I could not keep all of it to myself.”
That narrows and sharpens the theme a little more than seems necessary. As a parable, “The Day of Creation” is both acute and far-ranging, and Ballard uses a touch of irony and humor to keep it from getting out of hand.
The uprooting of the tree stump did not create the river, of course; what it did, was dislodge a complex arrangement of aquifers and set off the draining of a chain of lakes at its uplands source. That in itself does not negate the miracle--such a hydrostatic sequence is clearly far-fetched--but the fact is, that it was not Mallory who drove the bulldozer, but an army sergeant. Mallory as creator is a figment; perhaps all such claims to personal creation are, as well.
It is a good parable, but the book has some painful defects. Ballard loads it up with a number of auxiliary characters, each of whom stands for something but does not do much more than that.
There is Sanger, a charity hustler who hopes to prosper by getting himself televised distributing food. Everyone in the area has fled, so there is no one left to give food to. He turns, instead, to filming Mallory’s quest; the result is a murky, over extended sub parable involving the usurpation of reality by the media.
There is Nora Warrender, who takes a boatload of wartime rape victims upriver, tangles repeatedly with Mallory, shoots stray soldiers, and dreams of establishing a realm of women and animals somewhere in the hinterland. There are the rival African warriors, Kadwa and Harare, virtually indistinguishable one from the other.
Grotesque as some of these figures are, none of them has much individuality. Ballard expends a lot of energy on them, but it is a strenuous play of puppets.
Mallory also suffers from insubstantiality. He incurs various injuries, but somehow we don’t visualize the particular parts of his body upon which they are inflicted. He is abstract; all there is to him is his obsession, and it is an interesting one, but it doesn’t seem to exist in a specific person.
The same defect occurs with Ballard’s Africa. Although there is a great deal of vivid description, we never seem to get a particular sense of a place--as we do with Greene--nor even of the mood and menace of a place--as with Joseph Conrad.
The author’s greatest success, in fact, is with Noon, who may not be real at all. He is good at children, and he is good at illusiveness; and she goes with allure and humor from mystical river spirit to Mallory’s proto-Lolita to angry jungle creature.
She is the one who best fits with the book’s essential quality as parable. With the others, Ballard tries so hard to flesh out their grotesqueness that he ends up making them into elaborate bores. Mallory’s upriver quest is hampered by a string of overloaded barges.