Sunday Story Society is a monthly feature in which I review a (usually recent) short story. The stories will be available for free online, so if you like, you can read along and talk about the story in the comments.
‘A Mild Attack of Locusts’ was Doris Lessing’s first piece of work to be published in the New Yorker, in February 1955. It’s also the first work of hers that I’ve read, so I came to it knowing little more than that it was one of Lessing’s many stories set in Africa. We see events through the eyes of Margaret, a city woman married to Richard, and now three years on the maize farm of Richard’s father Stephen. For all her time there, the ways of the farm remain a mystery to Margaret:
She still did not understand why they did not go bankrupt altogether, when the men never had a good word for the weather, or the soil, or the government. But she was getting to learn the language. Farmers’ language. And she noticed that for all Richard’s and Stephen’s complaints, they did not go bankrupt. Nor did they get very rich; they jogged along, doing comfortably.
Whatever Margaret may have experienced on the farm so far is nothing, though, compared to what is coming now: a swarm of locusts which destroys the entire crop.
Two things strike me in particular about this story. One is Lessing’s descriptive language, the way she evokes the vastness and implacability of the swarm:
When she looked out, all the trees were queer and still, clotted with insects, their boughs weighted to the ground. The earth seemed to be moving, with locusts crawling everywhere; she could not see the lands at all, so thick was the swarm. Toward the mountains, it was like looking into driving rain; even as she watched, the sun was blotted out with a fresh onrush of the insects. It was a half night, a perverted blackness.
I love especially that image of trees ‘clotted with locusts’, making the swarm seem less a collection of living creatures than some sort of viscous substance that happens to move under its own volition. The imagery here emphasises how vast and overwhelming this attack is: the locusts make the land disappear, act like a weather system, turn day into night.
The second aspect that strikes me is what the attack reveals about the characters’ relationships with nature. Even though the locusts have eaten everything, the men of the farm still work to drive them away, because they know the difference it could make: it could stop their locusts from laying their eggs here. Attuned to the rhythms of the farm, the men call this attack mild – not because minimal damage has been done, but because they are resigned to paying a price, and know how much greater the cost might have been. In contrast, Margaret is still only beginning to comprehend the situation: ‘if this devastated and mangled countryside was not ruin,’ she wonders, ‘what then was ruin?’ Lessing shows life on the farm to be a constant battle against nature, fought in the knowledge that any reprieve is only temporary.