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Water Rising: Literary Floods of the Past, Present and Future

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It seems like it shouldn’t be possible, but flooding—that Biblically epic phenomenon, the literal stuff of legend—has become commonplace. The floods in Houston which followed Hurricane Harvey pushed to the back pages of most Western newspapers the vastly more devastating floods in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. As I write this, news agencies are reporting that Puerto Rico has been left without electricity by the flash floods which have attended the arrival of Hurricane Maria.

On one level it seems appropriate that the era of catastrophic climate change should begin with floods. Since the dawn of writing—at the latest—we’ve reserved a special awe and reverence for The Flood. Even more than earthquakes, eruptions or wildfires, flooding has symbolised for generations of artists the potential of the natural world to overthrow our civilisation. Perhaps in this era of manmade environmental destruction—ecocide—the flood is an especially potent symbol because we fear the Earth’s justifiable desire to cleanse itself of us. Enough flooding can literally wash our species away, leaving only the quiet, fertile earth we now claim, absurdly, to own.

On this list you’ll find five of the most powerful floods in literature. Some of them are historical floods that changed the lives of fictional characters as well as real people. Others are potent myths. Still others are yet to come.  

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The best-known flood story, of course, is the Biblical account of the great deluge by which God punished all of mankind except for the good man Noah. Most scholars now believe that this story is derived from the Mesopotamian flood myth, the best-known version of which is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic is arguably the earliest surviving work of world literature. It relates the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and Enkidu, a wild man who befriends the king after losing to him in a fight. The two friends undertake perilous quests together, but when they incur the anger of the gods, Enkidu is sentenced to death. Gilgamesh’s grief eventually turns into an obsession with forestalling his own death, and he goes in search of the secret of eternal life. He doesn’t find it, but he does learn many other secret things, including the true history of the Great Flood.

It’s awe-inspiring to read a story first set down at least four thousand years ago. Whether or not the Great Flood really happened, it is a story and a symbol as old as literature itself.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Written at a particularly poisonous moment in America’s long history of racist oppression, Their Eyes Were Watching God resists the temptation (and the considerable contemporary pressure) to address questions of race in a didactic or polemical way. Instead the story of the young African American Janey Crawford emphasises the unique individuality of each Black life. Hurston portrays the vibrancy of Black communities, as well as the hardships caused by racism. She also celebrates female sexuality at a time when most female authors were silent on the topic.

One of the novel’s major events is the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, which, like the hurricanes of 2017, caused terrible flooding. The storm (officially named the San Felipe Segundo Hurricane) is called after Lake Okeechobee, whose waters spilled its banks and caused nearly three thousand people to drown. The crisis of the hurricane and the flooding which follow bring to a head many of the conflicts in Janey’s life. Hurston masterfully shows how natural disasters on a global scale have profound and complex consequences on the human scale.

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The Makioka Sisters

Tanizaki is one of Japan’s most revered authors, but he’s not well known in the West, which is a particular shame given that his work is especially penetrating on the subject of the clash between Eastern and Western traditions.

The Makioka Sisters is his best-known novel, and an epic of domestic life. It concerns itself with the fortunes of four sisters as they negotiate love and marriage in a Japan which is rapidly Westernising. The most Western-minded of the sisters, known by the nickname Koi-san, gets into trouble when her Western ideas of Romantic love lead her to begin a relationship with a man who rescues her from a devastating flood.

Tanizaki shows us the flooding and its aftermath through a calm, unblinking eye. Few novels have so effectively shown how a natural disaster can turn normality upside down in an instant.

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The Drowned World

J.G. Ballard, who died in 2009, is gradually coming to be recognised as one of the pre-eminent writers of his generation and perhaps the leading light of ‘speculative fiction’ (a term Ballard himself did a great deal to popularise). His most famous novels are the eerie and prescient Crash, the thoroughly British dystopia High Rise, and Empire of the Sun, a novel set during the Second World War in the East Asia of his own childhood.

The Drowned World combines that childhood in Shanghai with Ballard’s later life in London to imagine a future in which floods and rising temperatures have turned London into a tropical jungle. His descriptions of the newly-Triassic city are mesmerising, but the novel’s real heart lies in the landscape’s effects on its characters. Our heroes are a group of scientists. As they attempt to map the half-submerged city, they discover that civilisation is only the surface layer of the modern psyche…

Ballard’s novel is a haunting account of how climate change might change us.

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Borne

With the Southern Reach trilogy, Vandermeer announced himself as a major new voice in contemporary fiction. His latest novel, Borne, picks up on the trilogy’s themes of ecological crisis.

Rachel grew up on an island which has disappeared underwater. She lives now in a collapsing city overrun by biotech experiments gone awry, the most terrifying of which is the giant bear, Mord. One day she discovers a non-descript but eerily charismatic little creature she calls Borne. Through its innocent eyes Rachel sees her apocalyptic context afresh, and she begins to love Borne. The question she must answer is whether human beings can any longer afford love.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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