Ecocide and Cormac McCarthy’s words
Kakhovka dam disaster: ‘hydroptic…sweeping waste…counterspectacle’
Welcome to the second instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments. (The first post on ‘dictator chic’ is here.)
Ecocide is the word of a week in which international legal experts said it was “highly likely” the June 6 collapse of the the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine was caused by explosives planted by Russians.
The Kakhovka dam breach is an unfolding humanitarian, economic and environmental catastrophe. Photographs and news reports from the region tell a heartbreaking story – thousands of acres of flooded farmland and homes, fish gasping on mud flats, drowned birds’ nests, trees and plants, tens of thousands of people with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no reliable sources of water to drink, no source of livelihood. Experts say the long-term consequences will be generational and the fields of southern Ukraine may become deserts by next year when the soil becomes parched. (One of the best reported pieces from Kherson, capital of the southern Ukraine province of the same name, is by Associated Press and it is here.)
Somehow, with Cormac McCarthy’s passing, it seems right to look at the bleak reality of the dam’s breach through the prism of his best-known novel, The Road. It deals with the struggles of a nameless man and boy to survive in the wreckage of a post-apocalyptic world, where too some act of deliberate or unwitting ecocide must have occurred.
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Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books:
By Peter Frankopan
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Professor Frankopan is a historian but it could be argued he is also a novelist whose subject is human beings. Their actions, today and yesterday. The impact of those actions. In this book, he tells the story our planet’s natural environment and its role in world history. How did destructive floods, devastating droughts and the very worst winters and summers affect ecosystems. How did human beings influence terrestrial, marine and atmospheric conditions. Writing in the Financial Times (paywall) Professor Frankopan described the effect of climate shocks and extreme weather events throughout history. It was a couple of months before the Kakhovka dam breach but his words ring with chilling and prophetic clarity: “The threats to our own existence are not limited to reckless exploitation of resources. The development of weapons of mass destruction with the capacity to destroy cities and kill on an epic scale — and which would also bring about dramatic changes to atmospheric conditions, making survival difficult for those not directly affected by a missile strike — is just one reminder of the fragility of our own existence, with life on Earth hanging on the push of a button.”
By Cormac McCarthy
Publisher: Picador; New Edit/Cover edition (Aug 2022)
The 2022 edition has an introduction by novelist John Banville, which sets the tone in a spare style that seems almost to take its cue from McCarthy. Banville recounts McCarthy’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he told of how the idea for the novel came.
Banville writes: “…in the middle of the night in an El Paso hotel room where he was staying with John Francis, who was then four years old. While the son was sleeping the father stood at the window, gazing into the deserted darkness and listening to the lonesome sound of trains going past, and toying with the thought of the town being consumed in some future catastrophe. He had, he said, ‘an image of these fires up on the hill and everything being laid waste’. Such images abound in the book the beginnings of which were implanted in his mind that Texas night: ‘A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss. The silky spills of ash against the curbing. He stood leaning on the gritty concrete rail. Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible to see at last how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence’.”
And another quote from The Road, which puts me in mind of what must be happening in southern Ukraine right now: “He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
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