Sunday, January 03, 2010

Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin

Atwood prefaces The Blind Assassin with three quotes: one from Kapuściński's book Shah of Shahs, one from Sheila Watson's Deep Hollow Creek, and one from a Carthaginian funeral urn. It's this one that struck a chord in me. First of all, I only recently happened to see the second half of a TV programme about Carthage. Some Cambridge (?) scholar who is a bit of a prodigy I gathered wandered around North Africa and searched for the lost culture. Without watching this I'd have understood less of the inscription quoted, which reads:

I swam, the sea was boundless, I saw no shore
Tanit was merciless, my prayers were answered.
O you who drown in love, remember me.

It's an absolutely lovely thing to have on a gravestone - or urn, in this case. So beautiful and sad. (That's the second reason for the chord-striking, of course.) Thanks to the programme I know that Tanit was the main goddess in Carthage, and that they most likely did not sacrifice children there. I love how life is composed of such coincidences - I haven't thought about Carthage in years, not since latin class probably, and here two instances pop up quite close together.

Another funny thing is that we apparently bought The Blind Assassin for my father once, but I'd forgotten. I had a massive Atwood phase in my teens, read all she's written that the library had, but then I dropped her. Like with most such infatuations I'm afraid to revisit them, convinced that if I was so enamoured in my youth it can't be that good. But The Blind Assassin is very very good. Never spotted it when we cleared up Daddy's things, or I might have nabbed it.

The Blind Assassin is a novel in this novel, written by Laura Chase and published by her sister Iris after Laura's suicide. The novel has become a cult book and Laura acclaimed as an iconic modernist author. An old woman now, Iris wants to tell the truth and share the complete story about herself and Laura. The only one left who has a right to it is her estranged grand-daughter Sabrina, so in the hope and fantasy that Sabrina will read it, or perhaps even suddenly appear on her doorstep, Iris starts writing her memoirs. There are three stories in the story then, Iris now, Iris's story in the past, and exerpts from the fictional The Blind Assassin. The latter is the story of a married woman who meets her lover in secret. The lover is clearly on the run, living in various places and scraping by, and the woman is wealthy and afraid of her husband. He starts to tell her a story, about a planet far away, where children who go blind when weaving sumptious carpets for the rich become assassins for hire. It's a science fiction/fantasy story, which, I've understood from reading a bit online, has annoyed some readers, because they think it breaks the flow of the book. It doesn't fit in. Well, I think it does. This escape into the imagination is a wonderful contrast to the starkness of Canada during the Depression, of a loveless, exploitative marriage, of a drunken, idealistic father who gradually loses everything, of the relationship between two sisters who have nobody but each other really.

There was this bit I wanted to quote, from where Laura's and Iris's mother dies. I found it painfully truthful.

(What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us ti stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves - our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I've been one myself, I know.)
[ . . . ]
I wanted to say that she was mistaken in me, in my intentions. I didn't always try to be a good sister; quite the reverse. Sometimes I called Laura a pest and told her not to bother me, and only last week I'd found her licking an envelope - one of my own special envelopes, for thank-you notes -  and had told her that the glue on them was made from boiled horses, which had caused her to retch and sniffle. Sometimes I hid from her [ . . . ] Often I got away with the minimum required.

But I had no words to express this, my disagreement with my mother's version of things. I didn't know I was about to be left with her idea of me; with the idea of my goodness pinned onto me like a badge, and no chance to throw it back at her (as would have been the normal course of affairs witha  mother and daughter - if she'd lived, as I'd grown older).

As we read we start to guess what the truth is, the truth that Iris wants to share before we die, yet it still comes as a catharsis. It's also a great description of Canada during hard years, a country of which I frankly have dim ideas -  apart from Degrassi High of course. I feel so strongly for Iris and Laura, growing up under the weight of their parents' idealism and the notion that the family has money more than the actual fact. A housekeeper/servant is the true mother figure for the sisters. Her aphorisms and sayings have stayed with Laura her whole life and she is the only one who is truly loyal to the girls. In the end Iris feels like she has betrayed both her sister and surrogate mother. There is such a powerful sense of loneliness about Iris, it's almost tangible. Great book, highly recommended. I might have to go on a new Atwood binge soon.

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