( Another of my earlier pieces in The Hindu on one of my favorite writers)
It’s difficult to unravel the primary identity of Margaret Eleanor Atwood. Is she a visionary philosopher who happens to use the twin tools of poetry and prose with effortless ease and felicity or is she a writer who happens to shape and articulate her vision with such clarity that countless readers and fans all over the world end up owning it for themselves. We have been as enriched by her prolific outpourings as we have been enlightened by her philosophical musings. We can claim with a measure of confidence that in the more than four decades of her writing, she appears to be on a mission to make the world a better place by making her readers think more and feel more.
Atwood burst into the Canadian literary firmament with her poetry in the early 1960s. She was rewarded by the Governor General’s award for her collection The Circle of Game a few years later. The fiction happened by the end of the same decade. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, was a rant against sexual roles inflicted on women. The protagonist Marian appears to delight in playing a passive aggressive role with her fiancée and her lover who are two distinct entities. Her increasing inability to eat as the story progresses is based on real and explicit fears of being consumed that the reader can easily resonate with. With her very first novel, Margaret Atwood communicated to the world that her writing is going to poke roughly rather than stroke gently.
The disagreements and debates were to follow when her treatise on Canadian Literature came out in the early 1970s. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian literature is looked upon as an enduring reference text for anyone interested in the country’s literature and the country itself. It is a priceless insight on how Canadians view themselves. According to Atwood, most if not all literary works from Canada emerge in the context of survival and the protagonists take on the psychological baggage of being victims owing to the chequered history of the country. The framework espoused by Atwood has its detractors to this day who claim that she chose works that would support her hypothesis but the book endures as an academic as well as literary text.
Atwood continued to dazzle in the 80s with her prose as well as verse. She also demonstrated her full range as a writer in this decade. From penning television dramas to entertaining children with her stories, writing poetry and prose fuelled by her leanings towards civil rights, the writer in her was at the height of her prowess. Her feminist leanings were increasingly evident in the collected criticism Second Words. She appeared to be carrying the discourse further when she came out with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. The almost surreal tonality of some of her earlier works seem to have found a home in the matching context of the science fiction genre the novel adhered to. It is a measure of Atwood’s genius that placing her tale in an alternate reality did not rob the story of any of its literary sheen. The novel not only went to win many prestigious awards but also became a huge popular success. This phase of prolific output also saw her writing for the stage.
However, her best seems to have been reserved for the last two decades. Alias Grace, published in 1996, can easily qualify as the best fiction she has written. A fictional biography of a notorious real life murderer, Grace Marks, who lived in the mid-19th century, it expertly mixed and matched a fictional first person narrative with actual journalistic accounts that appeared during that time to weave a complex and engaging tale of perception versus actual reality. Atwood’s Grace remains enigmatic and compelling to the very end because of the shadings the author gives her protagonist. While it may be read as a great story, Atwood, never content with the obvious, uses every subversive writing trick to raise pertinent questions about the nature of truth and how it gets contaminated by issues of power, culture and identity. During this phase, grumbles were getting louder about the way the wise judges deployed by the Booker committee were repeatedly ignoring her works. It seemed to be the sole literary recognition that had eluded Atwood. Atwood had to wait for the new millennium to have the slight repaired.
The Blind Assassin not only won the hearts of readers all over the world but also the coveted prize. The novel is a lesson for all aspiring novelists about structuring their works in progress. A seeming labyrinth in its narration, each piece of puzzle fits in perfectly as you turn the pages, enchanted as much by the style it adapts as you are impressed by the intellectual rigour she places on telling the story. The book achieves the near impossible: telling a complex tale of hurt and loss through the simple device of multiple narrations that repeatedly meet and fork. The accolades flew in fast and furious but Atwood had moved onto her next, Oryx and Crake, another Sci-Fi novel that came out in 2003. She has since then come out with two prose collections and a recent announcement talked of a new novel on its way.
We look forward to that. Just like millions of readers across the world delighting in every new offering she decides to surprise us with, ranging from a reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey to a children’s Musical. In her own words: “Like preachers, I sell vision, like perfume ads, desire or its facsimile. Like jokes or war, it’s all in the timing.”