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The Blind Assassin: The hard-boiled egg
What will it be, then? he says. Dinner jackets and romance, or shipwrecks on a barren coast? You can have your pick: jungles, tropical islands, mountains. Or another dimension of space--that's what I'm best at.
Another dimension of space? Oh really!
Don't scoff, it's a useful address. Anything you like can happen there. Spaceships and skin-tight uniforms, ray guns, Martians with the bodies of giant squids, that sort of thing.
You choose, she says. You're the professional. How about a desert? I've always wanted to visit one. With an oasis, of course. Some date palms might be nice. She's tearing the crust off her sandwich. She doesn't like the crusts.
Not much scope, with deserts. Not many features, unless you add some tombs. Then you could have a pack of nude women who've been dead for three thousand years, with lithe, curvaceous figures, ruby-red lips, azure hair in a foam of tumbled curls, and eyes like snake-filled pits. But I don't think I could fob those off on you. Lurid isn't your style.
You never know. I might like them.
I doubt it. They're for the huddled masses. Popular on the covers though--they'll writhe all over a fellow, they have to be beaten off with rifle butts.
Could I have another dimension of space, and also the tombs and the dead women, please?
That's a tall order, but I'll see what I can do. I could throw in some sacrificial virgins as well, with metal breastplates and silver ankle chains and diaphanous vestments. And a pack of ravening wolves, extra.
I can see you'll stop at nothing.
You want the dinner jackets instead? Cruise ships, white linen, wrist-kissing and hypocritical slop?
No. All right. Do what you think is best.
She shakes her head for no. He lights his own, striking the match on his thumbnail.
You'll set fire to yourself, she says.
I never have yet.
She looks at his rolled-up shirt sleeve, white or a pale blue, then his wrist, the browner skin of his hand. He throws out radiance, it must be reflected sun. Why isn't everyone staring? Still, he's too noticeable to be out here--out in the open. There are other people around, sitting on the grass or lying on it, propped on one elbow--other picnickers, in their pale summer clothing. It's all very proper. Nevertheless she feels that the two of them are alone; as if the apple tree they're sitting under is not a tree but a tent; as if there's a line drawn around them with chalk. Inside this line, they're invisible.
Space it is, then, he says. With tombs and virgins and wolves--but on the instalment plan. Agreed?
The instalment plan?
You know, like furniture.
No, I'm serious. You can't skimp, it might take days. We'll have to meet again.
She hesitates. All right, she says. If I can. If I can arrange it.
Good, he says. Now I have to think. He keeps his voice casual. Too much urgency might put her off.
On the Planet of--let's see. Not Saturn, it's too close. On the Planet Zycron, located in another dimension of space, there's a rubble-strewn plain. To the north is the ocean, which is violet in colour. To the west is a range of mountains, said to be roamed after sunset by the voracious undead female inhabitants of the crumbling tombs located there. You see, I've put the tombs in right off the bat.
That's very conscientious of you, she says.
I stick to my bargains. To the south is a burning waste of sand, and to the east are several steep valleys that might once have been rivers.
I suppose there are canals, like Mars?
Oh, canals, and all sorts of things. Abundant traces of an ancient and once highly developed civilization, though this region is now only sparsely inhabited by roaming bands of primitive nomads. In the middle of the plain is a large mound of stones. The land around is arid, with a few scrubby bushes. Not exactly a desert, but close enough. Is there a cheese sandwich left?
She rummages in the paper bag. No, she says, but there's a hard-boiled egg. She's never been this happy before. Everything is fresh again, still to be enacted.
Just what the doctor ordered, he says. A bottle of lemonade, a hard-boiled egg, and Thou. He rolls the egg between his palms, cracking the shell, then peeling it away. She watches his mouth, the jaw, the teeth.
Beside me singing in the public park, she says. Here's the salt for it.
Thanks. You remembered everything.
This arid plain isn't claimed by anyone, he continues. Or rather it's claimed by five different tribes, none strong enough to annihilate the others. All of them wander past this stone heap from time to time, herding their thulks--blue sheep-like creatures with vicious tempers--or transporting merchandise of little value on their pack animals, a sort of three-eyed camel.
The pile of stones is called, in their various languages, The Haunt of Flying Snakes, The Heap of Rubble, The Abode of Howling Mothers, The Door of Oblivion, and The Pit of Gnawed Bones. Each tribe tells a similar story about it. Underneath the rocks, they say, a king is buried--a king without a name. Not only the king, but the remains of the magnificent city this king once ruled. The city was destroyed in a battle, and the king was captured and hanged from a date palm as a sign of triumph. At moonrise he was cut down and buried, and the stones were piled up to mark the spot. As for the other inhabitants of the city, they were all killed. Butchered--men, women, children, babies, even the animals. Put to the sword, hacked to pieces. No living thing was spared.
Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light. Good for the trade, we thrive on bones; without them there'd be no stories. Any more lemonade?
No, she says. We've drunk it all up. Go on.
The real name of the city was erased from memory by the conquerors, and this is why--say the taletellers--the place is now known only by the name of its own destruction. The pile of stones thus marks both an act of deliberate remembrance, and an act of deliberate forgetting. They're fond of paradox in that region. Each of the five tribes claims to have been the victorious attacker. Each recalls the slaughter with relish. Each believes it was ordained by their own god as righteous vengeance, because of the unholy practices carried on in the city. Evil must be cleansed with blood, they say. On that day the blood ran like water, so afterwards it must have been very clean.
Every herdsman or merchant who passes adds a stone to the heap. It's an old custom--you do it in remembrance of the dead, your own dead--but since no one knows who the dead under the pile of stones really were, they all leave their stones on the off chance. They'll get around it by telling you that what happened there must have been the will of their god, and thus by leaving a stone they are honouring this will.
There's also a story that claims the city wasn't really destroyed at all. Instead, through a charm known only to the King, the city and its inhabitants were whisked away and replaced by phantoms of themselves, and it was only these phantoms that were burnt and slaughtered. The real city was shrunk very small and placed in a cave beneath the great heap of stones. Everything that was once there is there still, including the palaces and the gardens filled with trees and flowers; including the people, no bigger than ants, but going about their lives as before--wearing their tiny clothes, giving their tiny banquets, telling their tiny stories, singing their tiny songs.
The King knows what's happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don't know. They don't know they've become so small. They don't know they're supposed to be dead. They don't even know they've been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it's the sun.
The leaves of the apple tree rustle. She looks up at the sky, then at her watch. I'm cold, she says. I'm also late. Could you dispose of the evidence? She gathers eggshells, twists up wax paper.
No hurry, surely? It's not cold here.
There's a breeze coming through from the water, she says. The wind must have changed. She leans forward, moving to stand up.
Don't go yet, he says, too quickly.
I have to. They'll be looking for me. If I'm overdue, they'll want to know where I've been.
She smoothes her skirt down, wraps her arms around herself, turns away, the small green apples watching her like eyes.
The Globe and Mail, June 4, 1947
GRIFFEN FOUND IN SAILBOAT
special to the globe and mail
After an unexplained absence of several days, the body of industrialist Richard E. Griffen, forty-seven, said to have been favoured for the Progressive Conservative candidacy in the Toronto riding of St. David's, was discovered near his summer residence of "Avilion" in Port Ticonderoga, where he was vacationing. Mr. Griffen was found in his sailboat, the Water Nixie, which was tied up at his private jetty on the Jogues River. He had apparently suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Police report that no foul play is suspected.
Mr. Griffen had a distinguished career as the head of a commercial empire that embraced many areas including textiles, garments and light manufacturing, and was commended for his efforts in supplying Allied troops with uniform parts and weapons components during the war. He was a frequent guest at the influential gatherings held at the Pugwash home of industrialist Cyrus Eaton and a leading figure of both the Empire Club and the Granite Club. He was a keen golfer and a well-known figure at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The Prime Minister, reached by telephone at his private estate of "Kingsmere," commented, "Mr. Griffen was one of this country's most able men. His loss will be deeply felt."
Mr. Griffen was the brother-in-law of the late Laura Chase, who made her posthumous debut as a novelist this spring, and is survived by his sister Mrs. Winifred (Griffen) Prior, the noted socialite, and by his wife, Mrs. Iris (Chase) Griffen, as well as by his ten-year-old daughter Aimee. The funeral will be held in Toronto at the Church of St. Simon the Apostle on Wednesday.
The Blind Assassin: The park bench
Why were there people, on Zycron? I mean human beings like us. If it's another dimension of space, shouldn't the inhabitants have been talking lizards or something?
Only in the pulps, he says. That's all made up. In reality it was like this: Earth was colonized by the Zycronites, who developed the ability to travel from one space dimension to another at a period several millennia after the epoch of which we speak. They arrived here eight thousand years ago. They brought a lot of plant seeds with them, which is why we have apples and oranges, not to mention bananas--one look at a banana and you can tell it came from outer space. They also brought animals--horses and dogs and goats and so on. They were the builders of Atlantis. Then they blew themselves up through being too clever. We're descended from the stragglers.
Oh, she says. So that explains it. How very convenient for you.
It'll do in a pinch. As for the other peculiarities of Zycron, it has seven seas, five moons, and three suns, of varying strengths and colours.
What colours? Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry?
You aren't taking me seriously.
I'm sorry. She tilts her head towards him. Now I'm listening. See?
He says: Before its destruction, the city--let's call it by its former name, Sakiel-Norn, roughly translatable as The Pearl of Destiny--was said to have been the wonder of the world. Even those who claim their ancestors obliterated it take great pleasure in describing its beauty. Natural springs had been made to flow through the carved fountains in the tiled courtyards and gardens of its numerous palaces. Flowers abounded, and the air was filled with singing birds. There were lush plains nearby where herds of fat gnarr grazed, and orchards and groves and forests of tall trees that had not yet been cut down by merchants or burned by spiteful enemies. The dry ravines were rivers then; canals leading from them irrigated the fields around the city, and the soil was so rich the heads of grain were said to have measured three inches across.
The aristocrats of Sakiel-Norn were called the Snilfards. They were skilled metalworkers and inventors of ingenious mechanical devices, the secrets of which they carefully guarded. By this period they had invented the clock, the crossbow, and the hand pump, though they had not yet got so far as the internal combustion engine and still used animals for transport.
The male Snilfards wore masks of woven platinum, which moved as the skin of their faces moved, but which served to hide their true emotions. The women veiled their faces in a silk-like cloth made from the cocoon of the chaz moth. It was punishable by death to cover your face if you were not a Snilfard, since imperviousness and subterfuge were reserved for the nobility. The Snilfards dressed luxuriously and were connoisseurs of music, and played on various instruments to display their taste and skill. They indulged in court intrigues, held magnificent feasts, and fell elaborately in love with one another's wives. Duels were fought over these affairs, though it was more acceptable in a husband to pretend not to know.
The smallholders, serfs, and slaves were called the Ygnirods. They wore shabby grey tunics with one shoulder bare, and one breast as well for the women, who were--needless to say--fair game for the Snilfard men. The Ygnirods were resentful of their lot in life, but concealed this with a pretense of stupidity. Once in a while they would stage a revolt, which would then be ruthlessly suppressed. The lowest among them were slaves, who could be bought and traded and also killed at will. They were prohibited by law from reading, but had secret codes that they scratched in the dirt with stones. The Snilfards harnessed them to ploughs.
If a Snilfard should become bankrupt, he might be demoted to an Ygnirod. Or he might avoid such a fate by selling his wife or children in order to redeem his debt. It was much rarer for an Ygnirod to achieve the status of Snilfard, since the way up is usually more arduous than the way down: even if he were able to amass the necessary cash and acquire a Snilfard bride for himself or his son, a certain amount of bribery was involved, and it might be some time before he was accepted by Snilfard society.
About This Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your reading group's discussion of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize and the International Association of Crime Writers Dashiell Hammett Award.
About This Book
Iris Chase Griffen is nearing the end of her life and is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family. In a narrative that spans the twentieth century, Iris describes a childhood of wealth and privilege darkened by her mother's early death and her father's alcoholism and ultimately destroyed when the economic and political turmoil of the Depression forces her father to close the family's once-thriving factories. She tells of her marriage to Richard Griffen, a greedy, ambitious industrialist whose promise to save Iris and her young, vulnerable sister, Laura, turns out to be a snare of lies and treachery; and of her decision, spurred by grief and guilt after Laura's suicide, to publish a manuscript that catapults Laura to posthumous fame and condemns Iris to a life of lonely isolation.
Alternating with Iris's reminiscences and wry commentary on her current situation are passages from Laura's scandalous novel, The Blind Assassin, about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. Newspaper reports on events in the characters' personal lives--from Norval Chase's desperately hopeful speech at the last company picnic to Iris's posh wedding to Richard Griffen's mysterious death--as well as accounts of actual historical events add yet another dimension to the novel, coloring, deepening, and sometimes contradicting the readers' perceptions.
With breathtaking grace and authority, Atwood moves from richly detailed, multigenerational family saga to pitch-perfect, '30s-style science fiction to bittersweet memoir. The result is a work of extraordinary power, an exploration not only of imagined lives past, present, and future, but of the art and artifice of storytelling itself. Intricately constructed, The Blind Assassin crosses boundaries of genre and style in a tour de force of creative daring.
Question & Answer
1. Laura and Iris spend their childhood in Avilion, "a merchant's palace," and, like princesses in a fairy tale, are virtually untouched by the outside world. What other elements reinforce the fairy-tale-like quality of their lives? What role does Alex Thomas play within this context? Does Iris's depiction of her life as an old woman also draw on the conventions of fairy tales?
2. How accurate is Iris's declaration, "Long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism. I prefer to be upright and contained--an urn in daylight" [p. 43]? How was this "choice" affected by the distinctions Iris and Laura's parents made between the two girls when they were children? What incidents show that Iris has ambiguous feelings about the roles she and Laura assume as children? What signs are there that Iris has a romantic side she keeps hidden from the adults? What cost does this exact?
3. Throughout her life, Laura is considered a special, unusual person, more sensitive than most. How does Laura exploit the impression she makes on other people? Are her motives and intentions always as innocent as people assume? Iris says, "[Laura's] cruelties were accidental-- by-products of whatever lofty notions may have been going through her head" [p. 301]. How does the language Iris uses shed light on the complicated emotions Laura stirs up in her?
4. Regarding her father's role in arranging her marriage, Iris writes, "He was only doing what would have been considered--was considered, then--the responsible thing. He was doing the best he knew how" [p. 227]. In light of Norval's character and his previous treatment of Iris, is this explanation too facile? Was he motivated by reasons Iris doesn't allow herself to acknowledge?
5. Is Iris purely a pawn in a plan conceived by the men, or does she have reasons of her own for agreeing to marry Richard? In what ways does the marriage fulfill Iris's conception of herself and her approach to life?
6. Iris comes under the influence of three very different women in the course of the novel: Reenie, Callie Fitzsimmons, and Winifred Griffen Prior. How does each of these women affect Iris's view of herself--and of womanhood in general? How do their lives and attitudes represent the social environment and class structure of the times?
7. Several childhood experiences foreshadow Laura's ultimate fate, including her plunge into the river [p. 151] and her accusation that Mr. Erskine sexually molested her [p. 165]. What do these incidents indicate about Laura's personality? To what extent is she shaped by circumstances beyond her control?
8. Is Iris responsible for Laura's death? At what points could she have changed the course of events?
9. How do the newspaper articles advance the unfolding of the plot? Do they serve as an objective record of the events in the characters' lives?
10. How does the science fiction story constructed by the unnamed lovers mirror the story of the lovers themselves and the circumstances surrounding their affair? In what ways does it parallel events in Iris's life, both as a child and as an adult?
11. Atwood has said that the form of The Blind Assassin was influenced by early twentieth-century collages, in which newspaper excerpts were glued onto canvas and then painted around and over--thus framing two ways of representing reality, each of which contradicted the other but also complemented it. How many "kinds" of writing are in The Blind Assassin, washroom graffiti included? What purpose does each form of writing serve?
12. The era of the Great Depression was also an age of extreme fashion-consciousness among the wealthy. What role do clothes play in The Blind Assassin, in both the historical and the contemporary sections of the book? What do they reveal about the characters, and what do they conceal?
13. What are the various meanings of the title The Blind Assassin? Which characters act as blind assassins by uncomprehendingly causing the demise of other characters?
14. How do the multiple levels of The Blind Assassin interact with one another? Do they unfold in concert, shedding light on one another, or is the relationship among them only apparent at the end of the book? What does the use of this narrative technique reveal about Atwood's methods of storytelling?
15. If you have read other books by Atwood (particularly The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye), how does The Blind Assassin echo and extend themes she has previously explored? What new themes are developed?
About This Author
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than twenty-five books, including fiction, poetry, and essays. Her most recent works include the bestselling novels Alias Grace and The Robber Bride and the collections Wilderness Tips and Good Bones and Simple Murders. She lives in Toronto, Canada.
Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac; A.S. Byatt, Possession and Babel Tower; Robertson Davies, The Deptford Trilogy and The Cornish Trilogy; Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel; Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger; Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief; Susan Minot, Evening; Philip Roth, I Married a Communist; Richard Russo, Empire Falls; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries; Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.