Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

So this is my essential Sunday night viewing for the next ten weeks, or as long as "the fork" lets me last. I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, but The Handmaid's Tale was the only one of her works that I didn't enjoy the first time I read it. Nothing to do with Atwood's writing, it was simply that I thought it was a horrible story, with an awful premise. I found it genuinely disturbing. I worried about the mind that had dreamt the whole thing up.

But a few months ago, I read it again with my book group, and this time saw so much more. The storyline couldn't shock me any more, so I could observe the wit and insight behind the words with much greater objectivity. And a lot has happened to the world since I first read the book. I realised that Margaret Atwood hadn't just dreamt the story up out of nowhere in some sort of sick moment. She had studied and observed how totalitarian regimes handle women. She had understood the oppressive nature of extreme religious beliefs towards the female gender. She had recognised that man believes his sole purpose on this earth is to procreate, and the lengths that people may go to in order to pass on their genes. In a way, she had, writing in 1985 about an American dystopia, foreseen the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. We recently read I Am Malala in our book group, which made all too clear the ruined role of and lack of opportunities for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat Valley under their rule. And current US Vice President Mike Pence seems to hold beliefs not a million miles away from many of the Gilead regime, which is why the book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity long before the television adaptation.

The television adaptation is great. Very dark, both figuratively and literally, but it seems that electricity has gone the way of fertility so there aren't many lights to turn on. There are many shocking scenes: Janine losing an eye, the bodies strung up by the river, the Eyes in the vans, the ceremonies of rape, death and birth. But there is also Atwood's sense of the surreal, and her sense of humour. The technicolor macaroons. The Scrabble game. The oranges. A Simple Minds song. Atwood herself has a brief cameo, a blurry spectre looming large to slap a girl down in front of Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.

I love the use of flashback to Offred's past life, and her barbed interjections on the voiceover that reveal her innermost thoughts. Elisabeth Moss can say a thousand words with her facial expressions in any case - she might seem mute, repressed and withdrawn, but you always believe that there is a firebrand within.

I have seen Margaret Atwood twice in person - once at the Hay on Wye book festival discussing Oryx and Crake with David Aaronovitch, and secondly at the Theatre Royal in York this year discussing Hagseed, her reworking of The Tempest. Both times I was struck by how staggeringly intelligent, erudite and eloquent she is. She talks slowly and steadily, but her mind must be racing as she speaks in order to be able to continually come up with those sorts of verbal goods. In York she kept her coat on throughout the session and seemed only to be dropping in for the briefest of moments, yet the hour felt far longer owing to the sheer richness of her contributions. Atwood managed to give interesting answers to even the most banal of questions. The York interviewer was simpering and simplistic, and the first person in the audience to ask a question took about five minutes of precious time to do so. He began with the epithet "I'm retired", which raised a collective groan, and he then proceeded to tell his life story, waffling on to eventually form some sort of question which basically seemed to require a denunciation of the "youth of today" and all its ilk. Atwood graciously shot him down with her highlighting of environmental concerns (the focus of many of her novels, particularly the MaddAddam trilogy), to ensure that her priorities lie with making sure that there is actually a world still here in fifty years' time for "the youth of today" to live in. The Handmaid's Tale presents a world where "youth" as a concept stands in danger of being lost forever. The human race is dying out, and the fault is entirely its own.

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