This is the story of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world who search for the road out of devastation. The physical environment shattered, there no animals, plants, potable water, trees are crashing down and snow covers the land. Father and son are driven by the need to escape, to find the shore where salvation lies. But the loss is more than physical. In our ecosystem, the physical provides the foundation for the moral, the ethical and spiritual and with the loss of the foundation the father and son find themselves in a demythologised world that has lost the constructs implicit in the word ubuntu. We are back to Jurassic Park and the most terrifying creature to be encountered is another human being, no longer human. How does one make meaning of one’s life in such a world? Does one succumb and become a raptor? Or does one pursue a goal, like the father and son, who discover that to be a meaningless pursuit. The answer lies in the boy’s silences. Though he loves his father, he cannot fully approve of all his actions and when he is silent, it is because his father has denied the principle of ubuntu. And in the end, we see that it is only in a return to ubuntu that hope lies.
McCarthy, of course, does not use the word ubuntu but it is what he means. Ubuntu is that universal principle that underlies ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and dharma. Ubuntu is the fire within each human being that we must sustain to keep the ecosystem intact.
The book makes me wonder whether South Africa is not already in an apocalyptic state; we seem to have lost the values of ubuntu. We live in prison-homes in fear of one another and we are steadily destroying our environment, wiping out bees, frogs and other necessary elements. Will the day come when we build abattoirs for human beings?
Commentary on The Road
One of the images that sticks in my mind from this book is that swaying, chain-clanking column of armed beings with their enslaved booty of other humans - the sound pre-empting the eerie sight of this horrible 'death-march' through a bleak and barren landscape. The other is the resourcefulness and faith of the father and son in survival and the hope of something better on the horizon.
It definitely asks the question 'what does it mean to be human?' and recalls some of the apocalyptic vision in HG Wells 'War of the Worlds' although here the reason for the destruction is unknown and is all the more terrifying for that. This allows the reader to imagine what it might have been and in our current climate, it's not surprising that many opt for the environmentalist prophecy of doom - man's unbridled action on nature.
I have some reservations about the concept of some kind of balanced ecosystem. Organisms and materials are constantly destroyed and replaced or remade by both nature and by what we decide is in the best interests of humanity. That doesn't mean I believe we should destroy everything in our path and not bother to save anything but I am against the 'green' idea that nothing should be destroyed in order to maintain some mythical 'balance'. What we need is a more rational discussion about what is in the best interests of humanity and act accordingly. This may mean transforming our natural environment in ways that may not be advantageous to all living beings - eg whether to build dams and nuclear power stations or develop industrial farming in Africa and support genetically modified crops.
It was quite interesting that what often saves the father and son were man-made material and products that had survived the apocalyse - a supermarket trolley, plastic bags and canned food - stuff that many 'greens' consider environmentally unfriendly today.