Having been so grumpy about Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I thought I’d talk about a Booker Prize winner I really do like: The Blind Assassin, which won the Prize in 2000.
Margaret Atwood’s books seems to move at will between subject matter dealing with contemporary social reality (such as The Robber Bride), Canadian history, (such as Alias Grace) and speculative fiction, (such as Oryx and Crake). In this book, we have them all in one.
The complex plot is in itself a considerable technical achievement. The book begins with a first person account by Iris Griffen of being informed of her sister Laura’s accidental death. Then comes an account of the accident as if from a Toronto newspaper, from which we learn that Laura died in 1945. The reader is then introduced to the book written by Laura entitled ‘The Blind Assassin’. This book, published posthumously, tells of a romance between an unnamed couple, in the course of which he tells her installments of a story which he makes up as he goes along set on the planet Zycron. The story then reverts to Iris’s first person account, but now Iris is an old woman, living in the present day but also writing down her recollections of the past. The novel is made up of all these elements interleaved with each other – present day, memories, newspaper items and Laura’s book, both the romance and the story set on Zycron. But, unsurprisingly, all is not as it seems. Where a writer is writing about another writer writing about another storyteller, how ‘true’ is any of it? ‘… is what I remember the same thing as what actually happened?’ Iris asks herself. And replies: ‘It is now: I am the only survivor’.
Atwood’s descriptions of the landscape and buildings of the fictional Port Ticonderoga, the physical setting for much of the book, sound completely real – yet they are no more real than the descriptions of the planet Zycron. The social attitudes and prejudices which condition the action are also real – an accurate and not altogether unsympathetic picture of small town Canada from the 1920s to the present. But as important as what is described are the silences – what the story doesn’t tell us, at least until the end.
There is betrayal and tragedy in the novel; ‘It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road’. But it’s not a depressing book. This is partly because of Iris’s dry observations and acerbic comments on the situations and people she is describing. But it is also because she is so human. Iris doesn’t get what she most wants, but she gets the next best thing, and accepts this gracefully. Her realistic attitude to life – and death – are those of her creator. Atwood says ‘Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist’. And so is Iris, even in the face of age and decline. I find this deeply satisfying.
It is tempting to see at least some of Atwood’s fiction as autobiographical. She often writes about educated middle class Canadian women, and about lifestyles that are similar to those of her family and friends. However she rejects the suggestion that her work is autobiography, because the experience that she writes about is transformed by the power of imagination. She says that ‘every artist is, among other things, a con-artist. We con-artists do tell the truth, in a way; but, as Emily Dickinson said, we tell it slant. By indirection, we find direction out’. ‘I believe in artistry’, she says. ‘I believe there’s a difference between true confessions and writing a novel’. Peter Carey made up Ned Kelly’s true confession, and Margaret Atwood made up the stories that make up this novel. But to my mind, her direction is surer than his.