Review of "the sweetest dream" by Doris Lessing

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While there are many critiques of the radical left written by conservatives (often as dogmatic and out of touch with reality as their targets), this is a critique from a liberal/moderate left viewpoint that should touch a chord to people who are concerned about the injustices in the world while knowing that there are no simple solutions. The title of the book refers to the dream world that will come after the "glorious revolution."

This book is in the form of a narrative about a group of people from the sixties until our time. The plot is rather weak and several of the characters are extreme stereotypes but they and the story serve as a vehicle to chronicle the social evolutions of the last 40 years and it is there where Lessing is at her best giving wonderful snapshots of the times while providing her sharp social commentary. The story takes place in London and a fictional African country that seems to stand for Zimbabwe. There are strong sketches of the suffering of the African people, emphasizing the role of the local corrupt despots in contributing to their misery. Lessing does not use the term, but I have heard Africans describing their new elite as the "black British". Her descriptions do justice to the term. She provides devastating pictures of the radical left, both of the old time Communists and of the "new" left. Comrade Johnny is as irresponsible a husband and father as one can possibly imagine and at the same time an unrepentant Stalinist who completely disregards reality. His dogmatism may seem unreal but I had the misfortune of knowing such people when I was growing up (outside the U.S.) and they are indeed as dogmatic as Lessing describes them (and often almost as irresponsible as comrade Johnny). The main sympathetic characters are three women, unselfish in the extreme. Johnny's mother Julia, his first wife Frances, and his stepdaughter Sylvia provide the models for women who keep families and societies together in each of three generations. There is also an African woman, Rebecca, who plays a similar role in a mission and eventually she dies from AIDs transmitted to her by her husband. Sylvia works as a doctor in an African mission hospital and she provides the main link between the two geographical locales. Most of the male characters are unsympathetic, from the corrupt African officials to the globe trotting agents of "philanthropic" organizations that tend to do more harm than good. However, there are several female villains as well. One of them, Rose, is a vitriolic yellow journalist as self-centered and irresponsible as the male villains. Lessing provides devastating and funny sketches of her and other extreme feminists. With all her feminism Rose complains that "political correctness" is a plot of the American imperialists to take over the world. Another ultra-feminist comes across the statement that the "female mosquito transmits malaria" and she rails against the "fascist" establishment that she thinks is responsible for the statement.

Because political and social commentary is a big (and the strongest) component of this book the reader's own political orientation will affect the enjoyment of the book. If you think that Stalin has been misunderstood, or if you think that social problems will be solved by posting the ten commandments in schools, this is not a book for you.

T. P. - April 2002