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The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

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The-last-man-standingThe Last Man Standing, Davide Longo
MacLehose Press, 2012, 352 pp, £12.99

It seems close to certain that civilisation as we know it will not last for much longer. If Climate Change does not bring about a catastrophe, then the failures of nation-states, economies, or the entire capitalist system itself is sure to do so. And yet, despite ten thousand years of civilisation, the only post-catastrophe stories we can tell depict brutal worlds in which violent selfishness is the only mode of survival. Have we learnt nothing since we left the Rift Valley? Everything we have created since then has been the result of co-operation, and yet we cannot imagine using co-operation during a period when it’s most needed.

Of course, this is chiefly because popular entertainment as it now stands, driven by US market forces, is morally bankrupt, and because any such future fictions are in part based on American conceptions of a world without American society. When society goes, the American Dream is over and, we are supposed to believe, the American Dream is such a noble achievement that only animalistic behaviour can exist in the vacuum it leaves behind.

This is all rot, of course. Many US authors may subscribe to such a distorted view of human nature and society, but it’s disappointing when other nationalities follow suit. Davide Longo is Italian and The Last Man Standing was originally published in Italy in 2010; and it is an Italy after some unexplained catastrophe that it depicts.

The protagonist of The Last Man Standing, Leonardo, was a famous writer but took himself into self-imposed exile after a sex scandal. A female student had seduced him and then revealed all. Though it was clearly a set-up, he said nothing. This is because he is pathologically passive. For the first one hundred pages, he does nothing but witness some of the effects of the collapse of Italy: the village where he lives turns in on itself; outsiders are treated with suspicion and then violence.

Perhaps this is not entirely without reason. The villagers wish to keep what meagre supplies they have for themselves. Leonardo is not so cautious. Returning from a walk, he sees two men and a woman raid his house for food and clothing. Once they have left – he does nothing, he is too passive to confront them – he discovers they have defecated on his furniture. Is this what the fall of civilisation means? Shit on the sofa?

Leonardo’s ex-wife turns up with their daughter and her stepson in tow, she tells him she needs him to look after them until she returns from Switzerland with papers. She never returns. So Leonardo, daughter Lucia, ten-year-old Alberto and mute companion Sebastiano set out for the border hundreds of kilometres away.

En route, they meet with suspicion, violence, rape, murder and torture from a variety of people. Even when they find what appears to be a safe – if expensive – haven, it’s clear the safety is a careful illusion. Eventually, they are captured by a caravan of young people, ruled by an antichrist-like figure. Richard is so thinly characterised, he seems to inhabit a different book. He appears to exist only to put Leonardo through a baptism of fire, strengthening him sufficiently to win a contest of wills with Richard by cutting off his own hand. If Longo is trying to make a point here, it is wilfully opaque.

There’s nothing new in The Last Man Standing – indeed, the publishers have made a point of noting it, relying on the quality of Longo’s prose to sell the book. In recent years, the post-catastrophe world has become a somewhat crowded place in literary fiction, and the time has long since passed when stories set in it might say anything insightful. That Longo’s prose is generally good cannot save The Last Man Standing from being banal.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #242, September-October 2012.

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4 thoughts on “The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo

  1. Think you’ve got things a bit wrong in the preamble here. The classic American postapocalyptic narrative is utopian, not dystopian–a period of postcollapse chaos after which good folks reconstruct society (e.g. in Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower/Talent, The Stand, etc.). This is not a collapse of the American Dream, but an affirmation of it–that motivated individuals can do anything, even in the absence of working government. This notion is a core element of the American national mythology. Though the works I cited are all good examples, there is a darker variant of utopian American postapocalyptica in the form of survivalist fiction.

    The more recent dystopian turn owes more to film than literature, and specifically, to zombie films–many of which are not American.

    All that said, I’m also not sure that the dystopian vision is less realistic. After all, think of the zones of this world where modern states have collapsed: Somalia, DR Congo, 90s Afghanistan, etc. Obviously there has to be balance, but there are clear–and arguably clearer–reasons to be pessimistic. After all, these places are, in fact, marked by human cooperation–cooperation by those with means of violence against those without.

    • Except The Road, The Hunger Games, I Legend… any number of post-apocalyptic novels show a societal collapse without any rebuilding. One man against a world out to kill him strikes me as a narrative more attuned to the US character and history than stories of communities rebuilding themselves.

  2. That’s true of I am Legend, definitely. But The Hunger Games is, to me, more dystopian-authoritarian fiction than post-apocalyptic–and thus owes more to 1984, We, etc. than to Earth Abides or Parable of the Sower. After all, the problem here isn’t a lack of modern institutions but their transformation into something more hideously oppressive than what you find today. As for The Road, it arguably is redemptive at the end–or, at least, hints at redemption to come.

    My point, though, is that for the most part this non-redemptive (grimdark?) trend is still mostly new and one that I think takes its cues more from film (the films of Geroge A. Romero and Dario Argento, Mad Max, etc.) than the classic strain of American post-apocalyptic literature.

  3. I did not think the character in the novel was violently selfish. Others around him were, but not him.

    The end of the story has the main character teaming up with a small group of cooperative folks. Unlike the typical cosy/cozy (which derived from the British fiction of the day) it doesn’t postulate a wonderful world for the clever middle class folks who return to past virtues. It simply indicates that the cruel and violent will eventually burn themselves out.

    It would be helpful if you could give some clear examples of societies that work cooperatively during a collapse. You get a few examples in warlike conquests, where the goal (fending of the attacker) is clear, but otherwise my mind comes up blank.

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