le 14 février 2001
You're in your late twenties, you're married to one of the most powerful industrialists/politicians in post-war Canada (although you're now living apart), and your beautiful Harpy sister has just died in a mysterious road accident. So what do you do? You publish your sister's first and only novel, and watch as the vultures descend...
Margaret Atwood's Booker prize-winning novel is long and difficult to digest, a veritable seven-course meal. It's taken me a long time of reading and rereading to get my angle upon it. From the start, everything seems relatively straightforward. You know what happens to whom, and where and when they died. The rest of the novel explores have they got there. However, what's most interesting about this narrative is that it does stray from the path, and ventures into the Wild Woods. When Atwood won the Booker, she poignantly praised the work of Angela Carter, which resounds in a small paragraph in the novel: "All stories are about wolves". The Blind Assassin is very much a work of magic realism. You need to have some background reading, starting off with Dante's Inferno, especially Canto XIII. The Wood of the Suicides features the Harpies, and I believe these are symbolic of Laura's supposed 'hysteria'. Harpies are also known as 'The Robbers', and Laura is a notorious klepto. Iris (the name of our narrator) was also sister to the Harpies in myth. The two young heroes in the pulp novel have to enter a wood that supposedly has terrifying dead women in it. Laura is symbolised by the suicide of Dido from the Aeneid. There's also the glorious Book of Daniel, which recounts how Babylon fell overnight (which resounds in the pulp novel too, including the victorious Assyrians' Code of Hammurabi). Allied to this is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald: "The Moving Finger writes" quote is a direct link to the Book of Daniel and the Fall of Babylon. Add to these ingredients a generous helping of the Pre-Raphaelites and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and you've got the kind of novel that I love.
No doubt this will sound pretty daunting for your average reader (I've compiled a page concerning the context of this novel for interested readers). However, I think most people will be able to enjoy this novel without all these references. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood makes a big assumption that lots of people will know what the Depression was like in Canada. Unfortunately, Roosevelt and his New Deal are far more famous internationally than the ruthless 'Iron Heel' of Canadian Prime Minister Richard Bennett. Canada had a devastating Depression in the "Hungry Thirties", which was only fuelled by Bennett's policy of setting up forced work camps. This suffering made more people rally to the Communist Party of Canada under the leadership of Tim Buck, and led to organised protests, such as the Ottawa Trek. This was also the time of the 'Red Scare', the violent repression of 'pinkos' in North America. It's worthwhile looking up the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the deportation of Emma Goldman in order to really appreciate Alex's flight. Alex symbolises the many Canadian Communists who fought in the Spanish Civil War. However, Iris and Laura are cocooned in Avilion, and you don't really get to see anyone starving in The Blind Assassin to get any sense of this context, so probably Alex's cause is lost on a lot of readers.
The only fault of the novel is openly acknowledged within Laura's narration: "I've failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense. He remains a cardboard cutout." Due to the plot of the novel, Richard's most significant actions are always clandestine, off-camera. The only factual error I can find in the novel also revolves around him: "He was a frequent participant in the Pugwash conferences," we're told in his obituary at the beginning of the novel. Yet Richard died in 1947, and the Pugwash Conferences started in 1957 - the only way that Richard could have attended would have been as a manifestation of Banquo. Since the Pugwash Conferences were devised to bring around world peace, Richard (who's profited so much from his pugilistic attitude and the Second World War) seems a most unlikely candidate for membership. Margaret Atwood can't have too much of a liking for the legendary King Arthur on this evidence, but it's poetic justice that Richard's Excalibur is thrown away, never again to see the light of day.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable novel, and Atwood deserves the Booker prize (even if I think Matthew Kneale's English Passengers is slightly better). John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps, makes a cameo appearance towards the end in his more formal role as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada at the start of the fall of the British Empire. The narrative also concerns the Fall of the House of Chase. Norval Chase commits an unforgivable act of patriarchy when he sees the writing on the wall, and submits his daughter to the veil. Just like Belshazzar, he cannot avoid his fate, especially when faced with the mercurial Richard Griffen as adversary. Laura finally finds her voice after years of numbness, but at what price? The house of the Patriarch is falling (which is only just), but Margaret Atwood is courageous enough to question what has taken its place.
le 1 octobre 2005
The narrative collision in Margaret Atwood's 2000 novel is between the biographical recollections of Iris Chase Griffen and the novel "The Blind Assassin" written by her sister Laura Chase, who committed suicide in 1945. Thrown in for good measure at strategic intervals are newspaper articles covering the deaths and other choice moments in the lives of the characters, most of whom move in the upper echelon of Canadian society. We know that at some point the importance of the novel-within-a-novel (in which a man tells science-fiction stories to the woman with whom he is having an affair in backstreet rooms) for the real life story (the girl's father owns a button factory who marries off Iris to stave off financial ruin) will become painfully clear. "The Blind Assassin" is not allegorical, mainly because it is to personal a tale to have that broad a meaning for its readers. As Iris approaches death at the turn of the century, she looks back on her life in the 1930's and 40's, explaining it so that we understand the true import of her sister's novel.
I usually devour novels at a frantic pace but that proved impossible with "The Blind Assassin." This was one of those novels where you would finish a part, which alternate between the narrative and the novel, and mull over what had just happened and how the pieces were coming together. But even getting through individual chapters took time, because there were so many wonderfully written lines, so many finely crafted paragraphs, that you just had to sit back and enjoy them (or run around sharing them with people who were unfortunate enough not to have read this book yet). Young Laura Chase tends to take things literally, and this old literary chestnut blooms anew in Atwood's novel; pithy sayings and wise old adages are routinely scrutinized for fallacious qualities throughout. The result of this infatuation with Atwood's exquisite use of language is that I did not see the forest for the trees and was therefore completely stunned by the way things came together at the end.
But that is just fine, because it has been such a long time since I have read a book this well written. I do not think it is destined to be a classic per se, because ultimately its greatness rests on style more than substance, but in terms of contemporary fiction this would have to rank on the next rung down the ladder. I have several friends who are now eager to read this book, so after you are done with "The Blind Assassin" you should also pass the word along to those who crave literate literature.
Ce roman est d'autant plus jubilatoire qu'il devient de plus en plus addictif au fil des pages. Surtout, il ne faut pas se laisser décourager par le début, Margaret Atwood nous entraîne dans plusieurs récits au milieu desquels le lecteur peut se sentir un peu perdu. Mais dés que le fil conducteur apparaît, de manière floue et confuse puis de façon bien plus claire, ce roman devient impossible à lâcher. Encore meilleur que The Robber Bride, ce n'est pas peu dire!