Sunday, July 09, 2006

Margaret Atwood - 'The Blind Assassin'

This is the first Margaret Atwood book I've read, having been aware of her for years (of course - she doesn't exactly have a low profile). My sister 'did' 'The Handmaid's Tale' at school a decade and a half ago, and it must have been one of those books, as is the way with secondary schools, that are dwelt on at leisure over the course of a term, in acknowledgement that the children aren't likely to read them any quicker than that. She watched the film at home, which I dimly remember, and my impression was that it was one of those 'Brave New World' type Sci-Fi dystopia books which are so appealing as a child. The collision of the immortality of youth with the prospect of near-Armageddon, I expect: how exciting danger is when you feel it can't harm you.

'The Blind Assassin' is concerned with the deterioration from that point: from youth to age, from love to hate, betrayal, cold revenge and then doomed reparation. Told from the point of view of an old lady with a weak heart (near death, wanting to set the record straight), it draws a thread through the fabrics of present and past, pulling the two gradually together. Feebly, with an old woman's strength, so that it takes 600 pages and a year of writing (she describes the seasons as they pass) for them to meet. The narrative is gentle in its revelations: it signals them in advance, but makes no apology for the things it has kept hidden. Yet it's hardly unreliable: the whole point is to get at the truth of what happened, to unpick the lies of others. The conceit is maintained that this is not a novel but a collection of papers left for Iris Griffen's estranged grand-daughter Sabrina. To explain the estrangement. To explain that it isn't Iris' fault, and to give Sabrina back her history. That it takes such a novel-like form is itself one of several clues-which-don't-seem-to-be which cause the narrative to turn itself inside out along the way.

Sci-Fi finds its way in too. Half the novel (by sections if not numbers of pages) is given over to extracts from Laura Chase's 'The Blind Assassin'. Laura is Iris' sister, an other-wordly, free-spirited sort with an engaging habit of taking grown-ups too literally. Her death at the age of 25 is the event which kicks off the novel, and which it spends most of its length working back towards. She drives off a bridge, deliberately, in Iris' car. Her only legacy is her novel which, published posthumously, scandalises the local community of Port Ticonderoga, and precipitates a second suicide. In it, a couple meet for sex and stories at a variety of run-down locations. Both of them have severe constraints: he is on the run from the police (which is why he keeps moving), she is married. The reader is left to assume that the only highlight in either life is this series of meetings, which constitute the whole action of this novel-within-a-novel. Nothing is said of why the man is a fugitive, and very little of the woman's husband. The only time that matters is the time they spend together, and this is typical of Laura: her instinctive grasp of what's important leads her to ignore all the in-between stuff (money, propriety) which occupies her sister and most of the rest of us to a greater or lesser degree. Iris comments on this: that she is practical whilst Laura is not, and yet it was Laura who drove her car off a bridge, the ultimate practical action. She thinks she - Iris - would not have had it in her.

To begin with, most of these meetings - at least the parts we're told about - are taken up with the man's Sci-Fi stories. He makes them up on the spot, and she interjects when he makes a mistake, or is unwarrantably harsh to his characters. This is what he does for a living too: from his hide-outs, he types up reports from foreign worlds and submits them to magazines, who accept them from time to time and send out a cheque payable to one of his roster of pseudonyms. In this way he scrapes by. The stories he tells are violent and cynical. There is war, pillaging and destruction. The city of Sakiel-Norn is burned to the ground by the Lizard Men of Xenor. But before this happened Sakiel-Norn was plenty brutal on its own account. The main story (a monologue within the novel-within-a-novel) centres around a cruel custom the city has of sacrificing maidens, and a plot which is hatched to attack the regime responsible. The blind assassin of the title is to kill one of the maidens on the night before the sacrificial ceremony, and take her place. During the ceremony he will kill the High Priest and trigger a military coup.

Not surprisingly, this assassin is important. His blindness is literal: he knows exactly what he is doing, has been so worn down by the way society has treated him that any sense of moral responsibility has been lost. The blind assassins are a caste: used as slaves to weave beautiful rugs while young (while their fingers are small and nimble enough), they are tossed aside once this activity has destroyed their sight, and many drift - why not? - into contract killing. Iris, too, has her youth taken advantage of, worn away, and she too becomes a silent, unsuspected, deadly adversary. As an attractive young woman she is a member of an unacknowledged caste, to be used, by rich men in search of wives. A wife serving a double purpose: she will confer respectability, the appearance of social success; she'll also be something to fuck. Her equivalent of the killer's blindness is her inability to make decisions, at least at surface level (Richard and Iris' marriage is all about perception from the outside). The marriage is run by him, and his sinister sister Winifred. Iris has to resort to subterfuge if she's to exist at all. This she does and, whilst she does end up damaged, she is able to regard past events with remarkable equanimity. She outlives everyone who beset her, but also everyone she loved.

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