With many thanks to actor Chiyaan Vikram for mentioning the book in an interview and bringing Margaret Atwood back in my life when I needed her.
Margaret Atwood has answers to many of my questions. Or Iris does. They read my mind and weave these thoughts into the story, as if they’ve known me for ages. I haven’t felt this understood in a while. Ruskin Bond says he is happy when he finishes a book, and that is usually the case with me; but sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel grumpy for days afterwards, because it isn’t in your life anymore: there will be no more first times with it.
The Blind Assassin is a beautiful book, also books within a book. It meditates on living, dying, ageing, love, loneliness, and religion; on the pretence we subject ourselves to for approval or survival. The personal stories are framed by historical events of the 20th century: the Great Depression, the Second World War, socialist movements, and so on. Factories close, marriages of convenience are made, new money speaks and flounders. In the fictional Canadian town of Port Ticonderoga (see Fort Ticonderoga for some background), the sisters, Iris and Laura Chase, come of age amidst such turbulence. (Is this a good time to mention that I was delighted to recognise Emma Goldman from EL Doctorow’s Ragtime — especially because I remembered something I read two years ago?)
The title comes from a novel that is narrated and written within the book. Interestingly, it reminded me fleetingly of the start of Acharya Chatursen’s Hindi novel Somnath, where a young woman similarly awaits her fate at the hands of dark forces (or invaders?). Of course, I don’t think there is anything in common between the two, as I’ll find out when I actually finish Somnath.
Two of the themes that really stood out for me in The Blind Assassin were loneliness and ageing. Sisters, spouses, lovers, caretakers, all inhabit the same spaces, their internal lives mostly shut off from one another — despite the familiarity of years or nights spent together. Shreds of relationships linger in the tormented memories of the one who survives the longest: in this case, Iris, and she writes them down, meandering through a past that bears little resemblance to the present.
For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical. For some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such ambition, or no such hope. Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
Iris is surrounded by the ghosts of what could have been. She is estranged from her only surviving family, and taken care of by her former housekeeper’s daughter. Friendless and alone, she finds succour in her walks to the doughnut shop and in the graffiti of the bathroom cubicle at the shopping complex. She watches young women live their lives, oblivious of her existence. She is not overly inclined to be sympathetic:
After the three of them had left, I went to the washroom. On the cubicle wall was a poem: I love Darren yes I do Meant for me not for you If you try to take my place I swear to God I’ll smash your face. Young girls have become more forthright than they used to be, although no better at punctuation.
But Iris understands what it is to be young, especially when faced by the old:
But thoughtless ingratitude is the armour of the young; without it, how would they ever get through life? The old wish the young well, but they wish them ill also: they would like to eat them up, and absorb their vitality, and remain immortal themselves. Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would be crushed by the past — the past of others, loaded onto their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace. Up to a point, of course.
I cannot stop thinking of this; when age subsumes and suffocates, rather than nourishes the young, there is only unpleasantness. I think of my friends and myself — and how we are only now beginning to gain some respect for our existence, a grudging acceptance of what we have learnt by living.
In Paranjyothi’s Journey, the English translation of the first volume of Kalki’s classic Sivakamiyin Sapatham, the crown prince of Kanchi, Narasimha Varmar, asks his parents not to treat him like a child. He wants to be consulted when in meetings with the council of ministers, and to go to the battlefield when war is imminent. His father, the Pallava Emperor, finally agrees. What will come of this I don’t know yet, for I am only about halfway through the book, but I hope it bodes well for him. We have too many young people crushed by the weight of expectations from people older than them selves— not just within their own families.
The Blind Assassin is mostly bleak. Levity appears in unexpected ways, but the story and the fates of the characters, on the whole, are grim. Dark paths are taken, questionable decisions are made. But this is only human.
Then a motel that used to be called Journeys End. I suppose they were thinking of “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” but not everyone could be expected to get the reference: it might have come across as too sinister, a building all entrances but no exits, reeking of aneurysms and thromboses and emptied bottles of sleeping pills and gun wounds to the head. Now it’s called simply Journeys. How wise to have changed it. So much more inconclusive, so much less terminal. So much better to travel than to arrive.
I had a hard time getting into the book. I won’t blame this on my habit of reading many books at a time — I am resigned to this being the default state now. What kept me going was that Atwood seemed to hold up a mirror to my life. She thought for me, wrote for me, and said things I’ve felt but not had the words to express. This is what a good book does, when it comes into your life at the right time.
I could go on, but I want you to find out for yourself. The plot takes its course, but it is the writing that takes your breath away. At over 630 pages (Kindle version), it is the longest book I have read in a while, and I am so glad I didn’t give up on it. Read it for the words, for the craft, and for Atwood prising secrets out of your soul.