‘Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.’
My nerdy son informs me that the phrase originated with a WWII American Army General called Joseph Stilwell whose caustic personality earned him the sobriquet ‘Vinegar Joe.’ I’m certain it would give old Joe pause for thought to know that his motto has become a slogan of feminism and individuality.
I have read and enjoyed a half dozen of Margaret Atwood’s books. The Blind Assassin is one of my all-time favourites. But, to be honest, I was afraid to read The Handmaid’s Tale in the same way I remember being afraid to go to the cinema to watch Schindler’s List. I don’t enjoy being horrified. Ever since Virginia Andrews‘ Flowers in the Attic was passed around my school classroom, I have been careful to avoid any books that might fall into the genre of horror.
The word dystopia has become a throwaway descriptive remark. The YA section of my local bookshop is awash with black and purple covers claiming all sorts of dystopian future horror as if it were a good thing.
I instinctively recoil from these books. I want to bury my head in the sand of romance and happy endings. But I know, also, that dystopian fiction serves a purpose. Usually, it teaches us the value of treating our fellow humans as individuals, with equal rights, rather than members of a herd to be corralled or classified. It may be that, in an age where we are constantly bombarded with and bamboozled by information, marketing and propaganda, we have all the more call for role models of courageous individuality.
I studied William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Orwell’s 1984 in school. I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 last year. These are excellent books but I couldn’t say I enjoyed reading them. I also read The Hunger Games and the Chaos Walking series, both aimed at younger adults but plenty horrific enough for me. I guess I have been slowly building my tolerance to the dystopia genre. I would never file any of these under ‘Books I Love’ but, at the same time, I believe there is value in reading them.
‘Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’
It is important that we consider how we assign and how we restrict power. It is essential that we learn how to recognise and limit anti-social behaviour.
‘They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.’
More than anything, it is vital that we each believe in the resilience of the individual human spirit.
‘But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no-one.’
Dystopian fiction allows us to learn from a horrific situation without having to live through it. My problem is that I can become completely immersed in a book, so much so that I suffer the anxiety and low mood as if I was really living through it. Just ask Husband, I’ve been like a sore-headed bear all week.
It was worth it. This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read and certainly the best of its kind. It has made me think. It has added to that little store of courage I keep bottled up in my soul like one of those fireman’s axes you see stored behind a sign saying ‘break glass in case of emergency.’My own personal MayDay. M’aidez.
‘Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean. I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun. Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.’
The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly horrific. It is also completely riveting; once you’re in it there’s no escape. Thankfully, it ends hopefully, as most dystopian novels do. As a species, we have often been led astray in a blind race towards progress but we have, usually, found our way back to sanity. It is books like this that teach us how to listen to, and even how to be, the courageous lone voices who refuse to give up.
Sometimes, we shouldn’t choose our books solely according to how much we think we will enjoy them. That would be akin to living on white bread. It behoves us, as educated members of a liberal society, to read better and know more.
After all, if we don’t keep an eye on the temperature we could find ourselves boiled alive.
Even believing this, I might not have finally dived into this book without an encouraging push from Sam at A Coastal Plot, a woman of excellent taste and good counsel.
I was at a conference at the weekend about the food industry where I heard that the mantra of the Terre Madre Slow Food Movement in Spain is this:
‘They are giants but we are millions.’
That seems to me just an alternative translation of Margaret Atwood’s motto.These are words to live by:
‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’