Reflections: In the Country of Last Things

Paul Auster's 1987 novella, In the Country of Last Things, shows the power that language can have to create whole new worlds for the reader to experience. Auster truly deserves the encomia heaped upon him, for he has mastered the art of prose fiction.

Our narrator, Anna Blume, has slipped across the border into an urban space that used to be like our own, but has experienced some inexplicable blight. Everything has broken down, from government services (except, tellingly, the daily collection of dead bodies) and protections to basic codes of civility, man's instinctual desire for survival, and even biological systems of individuals. The gruesome imagined world allows Auster to paint the latent selfishness we all carry with us, and how it rises to the surface in savage circumstances. In that respect, it shares its technique with  the most moving of novels about war and natural disaster. However, because the cause of this barbarism is unknown, the focus homes in not on the politics of societies but on the actions of individuals that contribute to the overall degradation.

Anna maintains her will to live, and her instincts to do so, by crafting temporary communities to which she can commit. She sacrifices her own safety to save an elderly woman on the street, and then makes that woman into a surrogate mother figure with whom she lives and to whom she dedicates her energies and resources. Once the woman dies, she spends her last funds on an extravagent act of mourning, and goes out to look for death or another community. Tracking Anna's mood and health to her ability to create a common  cause with others, Auster underscores that the sacrifices that we make in the development of relationships to be, finally, investments in our own endurance.

Within the context of Anna's life, writing is the other saving grace, and even this is social. Her narrative addresses an old friend from outside the country of last things, explaining to him the physical and social landscape in which she finds herself doomed to pass the rest of her days. As such, the story reminds us what dedicated readers sometimes fail to adequately consider: why we read. Communities, especially in the modern world, pop up in ways beyond the physical, and writing can be our greatest tool to draw people together for our collective survival.

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