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Alias Laura: representations of the past in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin.


Alias Laura: Representations of the Past in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin by Alan Robinson

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, an intricately self-referential historical novel comprising two generically different self-narratives, is a book of the dead, motivated by the need of the main narrator, Iris Griffen Chase, to memorialize and appease the ghosts which haunt her. This article analyses her psychological entanglement with her dead sister, evident in the conscientious self-examination in Iris's memoir and in her fictional masquerading alias Laura, and the historiographical and hermeneutic complexities of her self-narratives, in which an ontological analogy is implied between the virtual reality of memorial (re)construction and that of writing, in its evocation of 'another dimension of space'.


The Blind Assassin (2000) is characteristic of Margaret Atwood's fiction from Surfacing (1972) onwards in depicting the female protagonist's haunting by ghosts which defy repression and must be confronted and appeased. This theme was also a major preoccupation of the Empson lectures which Atwood delivered in 2000 and published as Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. (1) In The Blind Assassin the negotiating with the dead is effected in two self-narratives--a pseudonymous roman a clef and an overt memoir-which reflect on the ontological presence of the past in memorial and literary 'reality'. Thus, the narrator, Iris, remarks of her self of over sixty years earlier that 'she, if she can be said to exist at all, is composed only of what I remember'. (2) This virtual reality is compared, as in Atwood's contemporaneous lectures, with that evoked by writing: 'another dimension of space' in which writer and readers bestow imaginative life on the inanimate. The following essay examines the summoning up of the family ghosts in The Blind Assassin from a historiographical and hermeneutic perspective, then ponders Iris's psychological entanglement with her sister, which motivated both her memoir and her fictional disguise alias Laura.

In Alias Grace (1996), her imaginative reconstruction of the enigmatic Grace Marks, who was sentenced as an accessory to a double murder, Margaret Atwood combined contradictory source material from the 1840s to 1860s with fictitious texts, including Grace's own inconsistent self-narratives. This self-conscious venture into historiography emphasizes our problematic access to events via their traces in fortuitously preserved and necessarily partial accounts, although Atwood elsewhere indicates that she rejects the anti-foundationalism of those postmodernist historians who argue that there is no referent anterior to the discursive representations through which alone we encounter the 'past'. (3) Instead, her scepticism in Alias Grace is epistemological rather than ontological; she concludes not that there is no truth to be known but that, as far as the murder is concerned, 'truth is sometimes unknowable, at least by us'. (4) Inconsistently, her use of an authorial narrative voice with privileged access to Simon Jordan's consciousness appears to contradict this. This selective omniscience does not, however, alter the fact that, as far as the eponymous main character is concerned, Atwood offers no interpretative synthesis or closure but instead presents readers with narratives which are alias Grace: multiple versions of her personality which are ascribed to her by herself and others, one or some of which may be a true likeness, although this is something of which one cannot be certain.

Atwood's succeeding novel, The Blind Assassin, which delves into the circumstances surrounding a fictitious rather than factual series of violent deaths between 1945 and 1975, addresses similar historiographical difficulties. It too has a first-person narrator who is accused of being an accessory to the deaths of others and is, like Grace, a storyteller 'with strong motives to narrate but also strong motives to withhold' ('In Search', p. 1515). Her reasons for withholding information are partly pragmatic and tactical, like Grace's, but also result from her conflicted relationship with her enigmatic sister, Laura, about whose life the novel's main narratives contain significant gaps and silences. Readers thus confront a biased, possibly unreliable narrator and a character about whose acts and motivation they, like the narrator herself, can only make conjectures, which, as in Atwood's preceding novel, may perhaps be alias Laura.

Atwood accentuates these hermeneutic problems by adopting a modernist structure, although not a modernist narrative technique, in The Blind Assassin: several kinds of textual material are cut up and interleaved by an implied authorial 'arranger' in what Atwood herself has described as a 'collage', suggesting an analogy between these different forms of narrative and the juxtaposition in a cubist collage of different conventions of representing 'reality'. The main narrator is the 82-year-old Iris Chase Griffen. Writing in 1998-99, she recalls the history of the Chase and Griffen families, in particular the events leading up to her sister Laura's suicide in 1945, interweaving this narrative with diary-like observations on her present life in Port Ticonderoga. Interspersed with this memoir are what purport to be authentic extracts from local newspapers and magazines between 1934 and 1999, and chapters from a roman a clef, The Blind Assassin (New York, 1947) [hereafter abbreviated as BA], which Iris ostensibly published under the pseudonym of her sister--alias Laura, as it were. (5) This novel-within-the-novel itself contains a lengthy science-fiction narrative about the planet Zycron (a Bolshevist allegory of Canadian society in the 1930s) and other fragmentary stories through which this novel's main characters negotiate their love affair.

If one believes Iris's unverifiable assertion that she is the author of BA, then Atwood's novel intriguingly contains two separate autobiographies by Iris Chase: one written with coded obliquity during the 1940s when Iris was preoccupied with the triangular relationship which she and Laura shared with Alex Thomas, and one written over fifty years later with the benefit of hindsight but the added unreliability of memorial reconstruction at an even greater chronological distance. The two autobiographies differ in intended audience. The addressee of the 1947 text was Iris's husband, Richard Griffen. Its publication avenged his physical abuse of Iris and sexual abuse of Laura by destroying his political career through the scandalous revelations it provoked (which Iris herself anonymously fuelled). It also destroyed any illusions which Richard might have had that Laura had any affection for him, or (if he suspected that the 'she' might be Iris) taunted him with his wife's adultery. The 1998-99 text, Iris's final act of revenge against the Griffens and in effect her last testament, is addressed to her estranged granddaughter Sabrina. Claiming to be the last one who can offer 'the truth' (p. 536), Iris retaliates against Winifred Griffen's checkmating of her in the 'game of nasty chess' (p. 618), in which she first claimed custody of Iris's daughter, then of her granddaughter, and turned both against her, by asserting that Sabrina is no blood relative of the Griffens.

Three interrelated and practically inextricable issues stand out in this memoir. The first is that of knowledge. To adapt the terminology which the cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser has developed in his research into memory, Iris as the 'remembering self' constructs in 1998-99 a 'remembered self' or series of 'remembered selves' which purportedly correspond to the 'historical self' that was alive at the time of the situations she recalls. (6) As Iris remarks of her wedding photograph: 'I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome, the result of the life she once lived headlong; whereas she, if she can be said to exist at all, is composed only of what I remember' (p. 292). At times her narrative indicates the limits of this memorial (re)construction. Related to this question of how much she now can 'know' about her past is the question of how much she 'knew' while living through what she now believes she remembers. Sometimes she emphasizes how much she was able to grasp intuitively, although elsewhere she stresses the discrepancy between what she has subsequently learnt and her earlier naivety, impercipience, or ignorance. This inconsistency is crucial to the presentation in her memoir of her protracted inner debate between self-reproach and the desire to justify or vindicate herself.

This leads to the second issue: that of agency. Iris's self-questioning centres on what she guiltily feels she ought to have known (or perhaps must have known but repressed) about Laura, which would perhaps have led her to act otherwise. Whether accurately or astutely, her narrative presents her--in contrast to Laura's active initiatives of escape or rebellion--as a largely passive figure who, as with her arranged marriage, acquiesces in the path of least resistance. The implication is that, whether as a result of Iris's personality or the responsibility which her mother's early death prematurely thrust upon her as the elder sister, her belief in her capacity for self-determination has been buried beneath the 'false self' which she has constructed to secure the love and approval of the men on whom she is emotionally dependent. (7)

Knowledge and agency are subsumed in the third, overarching issue: how to represent events in a narrative which, like all historiography, records the build-up to an outcome which, at the time of writing, is already known. Iris's self-narrative entails both an interpretation and an evaluation of her life. This requires that a meaningful pattern be imposed on events, involving such rhetorical devices as 'turning-points' and organizing metaphors, themes or leitmotifs. The implicit theories according to which such interpretations are made are drawn from the shared beliefs and expectations of her society, just as her life itself was lived largely with reference to the role-models, scenarios, and discursive paradigms available to an upper-class woman in English Canada for the social construction of the self. In Iris's case, the generic conventions within which she imagines and negotiates her life include the Tennysonian and Pre-Raphaelite late Romanticism which she derives from Grandmother Adelia and her tutor, Miss Violence, discourses of female and male self-sacrifice, plots involving resolution in marriage, and narratives of trauma and victimhood in the cautionary tales told by Reenie and Mrs Hillcoate.

In fitting the relatively unpredictable course of events into such interpretative moulds, the risk is of falling into the trap of teleological thinking: as Iris comments on Reenie's account of Iris's parents' lives, 'after the wedding, there was the war. Love, then marriage, then catastrophe. In Reenie's version, it seemed inevitable' (p. 87). Similarly, Iris's remark that Laura 'had no thought of playing the doomed romantic heroine. She became that only later, in the frame of her own outcome and thus in the minds of her admirers' (p. 509) suggests that, albeit without her foreknowledge, Laura's life followed a predetermined script, although it is unclear whether this is something which became retrospectively apparent or is merely projected back in a teleological interpretation of her life history. Related to this are the thorny issues of causation and responsibility: to what extent were the outcomes in Iris's and Laura's lives the foreseen and intentional consequence of conscious actions (necessarily founded, however, on imperfect knowledge and partial impressions), the unintentional consequence of conscious actions, or the practical consequence of unconscious impulses which led involuntarily to unforeseen and perhaps undesirable results, as other agents, in turn, reacted to their actions?

Within Iris's family history one can distinguish the period before her childhood from that of which she has conscious, first-hand recollections. Her account of the former seems plausible because its descriptions of artefacts, fashions, and furnishings lend an aura of authenticity and because the themes which it traces in the social history of the later nineteenth century echo those highlighted by recent historians of that period: the amassing of industrial wealth by the Chases, the conversion of this new money into cultural capital through a dynastic marriage with a branch of the financially declining Montreal aristocracy, Adelia's pursuit of Arnoldian and Ruskinian Culture through the construction of the late-Pre-Raphaelite Avilion, the humanistic rather than commercial education of the sons, etc. The historiographical assumption is that such cultural narratives were ones which the members of the Chase family themselves would have recognized and chosen to identify with, shaping their self-concepts and their lives according to the scenarios available to them in English Canada at that time.

At the individual rather than the social level, Iris's self-narrative is structured by the caesuras caused by life events which marked what can be identified as successive phases or stages in the lives of family members. These 'turning-points' were sometimes so obvious that they could be recognized as such at the time: for example, the devastating impact of the First World War on her parents, Liliana and Norval, or Iris's mother's death: 'It would be trite to say that this event changed everything, but it would also be true' (p. 107). In other cases, such as her musings as to whether the dinner party at Avilion after the button factory picnic marked 'the beginning' (p. 232), it is impossible to distinguish what was evident at the time from what, in the retrospective constructions of the memory, appears to have been so.

A further structuring device is Iris's suggestion that life situations or behavioural patterns within the Chase family have repeated themselves over generations. A straightforward example is her quotation of Reenie's comment that, in her social work in the soup kitchen, Laura was the 'spitting image' of her mother Liliana (p. 240). A more intriguing instance is her reporting of Reenie's remark that Grandmother Adelia 'wasn't married, she was married off' (p. 74), which in Iris's memoir proleptically anticipates her own arranged marriage to a parvenu industrialist. It isn't clear whether this implicit foreshadowing suggests an ineluctability which would serve Iris's self-justifying disavowals of her own agency. There is a similar proleptic irony in her account of the clandestine love affair which as a teenager she imagined for her first role model, Grandmother Adelia (pp. 74-75). This, Iris acknowledges, corresponds more to her own fantasies of escape or rescue from the Burne-Jones-like 'thorn-encircled island' of Avilion and to her own later adulterous grand passion than to Adelia's own circumstances.

Iris's romanticization of her grandmother is inspired by a photograph of Adelia. It epitomizes the recurrent utilization in the memoir of photographs as historical 'sources', raising the issue of Iris's 'knowledge' of the past. At times Iris self-consciously indicates the projection involved in her interpretations. Thus, imagining her parents' brief stay in Halifax in 1915 before Norval's departure for France, during which Iris was conceived, she wonders where they met, what passed between them: 'The usual sorts of things, I suppose, but what were they? It is no longer possible to know' (p. 89). Similarly, as she scrutinizes the newspaper photograph which records Norval's return from the war, she veers between confident statements, rhetorical and tentative questions, while her slippery adverbial phrases, modal verbs, and use of free indirect speech concede the presumptuousness of her suppositions about her parents' emotional life (pp. 94-96). Nevertheless, throughout Iris's memoir it is striking how frequently she feels warranted in slipping into free indirect speech to convey what, on frequently tenuous evidence, she presumes to have been the emotions and beliefs of others.

The tricky question of what Iris knew becomes more complex when her narrative reaches the period in which she can draw not only on what she can remember of Reenie's anecdotal accounts of events--the oral history of a witness which antedates or supplements her own perceptions--but also on her own intuitive inferences about what was going on in the family. At one point, to justify the validity of these inferences, she adopts a defensive tone: 'How do I know all these things? I don't know them, not in the usual sense of knowing. But in households like ours there's often more in silences than in what is actually said' (p. 98). This contention is supported by three kinds of memories. First, of observations which impressed themselves on her imagination as significant, even though at the time she was naively unable to interpret them: for example, of the fact that the waitress at Betty's Luncheonette briefly touches Norval's hand. Second, of insights into characters, as in her powerful depiction of Norval just before Laura's birth, as he stares into the flames of the morning-room fire. But this passage raises hermeneutic difficulties which recur throughout Iris's self-narrative and blur the boundary between 'reality' and unconscious fiction. It is possible that this 'memory' is a genuine recollection of her childhood imago of her wounded father as the 'werewolf' of their besieged castle, an inscrutable, remote figure who periodically withdrew into his turret room to stupefy himself with alcohol and, in his evident vulnerability, formed the implicit antithesis to the man in flames in her colouring book, whom she loved because the fire 'can't hurt him, nothing can hurt him' (p. 102). It may, however, be that this 'memory' is a retrospective construction, influenced by Laura's later confession of how she had been disturbed by her sense that Norval 'was burning up. All the time' (p. 472) and by Laura's painting of Richard as a man with his head in flames (p. 551). Such symbolic patterns lend rhetorical form to Iris's memoir but their blatancy reminds readers of how much, as a narrator, Iris has her 'thumb in the scale'. (28)

The third kind of memory is of premonitions which are subsequently confirmed. A striking instance is when she learns of the onset of her mother's fatal illness: 'When she said that, I felt an electric chill run through me, because I knew it. I'd known it all along' (p. 109). Significantly, her later premonitions involve Alex Thomas. When he is being hidden in the attic at Avilion and makes a pass at Iris, she reflects: 'Had I expected this? Was it so sudden, or were there preliminaries: a touch, a gaze? Did I do anything to provoke him? Nothing I can recall, but is what I remember the same thing as what actually happened?' (p. 266). In fact, her memoir has recorded her preceding sexual fantasies about him and the dream of escape which she associates with him. But what she emphasizes instead is a sense of helpless passivity, which appears to confirm Reenie's warnings that women are the powerless victims both of predatory males and of a 'love' which sweeps them away, perhaps even to their death. The implication is that Iris has only limited agency and hence responsibility; it is a pattern which characterizes her relationships with her father and Richard and also the abject emotional dependency of the 'she' in BA.

The interpretative issue throughout her self-narratives is whether Iris's personality structure did indeed make her vulnerable to the pressure exerted by overbearing men, with whom she repeated her formative relationship with her father, or whether her self-representation in her memoir self-justifyingly understates her scope for agency. In this respect it is interesting to compare her account of how she fortuitously meets Alex again in August 1935 in Toronto and stretches out her hand, 'like a drowning person beseeching rescue': 'such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance' (pp. 393-94). This is, one feels, a more honest admission than the self-deceptive ambivalence of the earlier account, where what is presented as a passive encounter with Alex had also been unconsciously desired.

Iris's downplaying of her own agency conflicts, of course, with her self-accusation of having acted as Laura's blind assassin. Iris's representation of this relationship is, I shall now argue, crucial to BA. Given Iris's ostensible ability to detect emotional undercurrents in the people around her, it is disconcerting that, on her own account, she was unprepared for the revelation of Laura's abuse by Richard, even though there had been several verbal and non-verbal intimations of this, which Iris had apparently registered, otherwise she would now be unable to chronicle them. This inconsistency in Iris's self-representations is explicable only if one posits a wilful 'blindness', involving defence mechanisms of repression and denial which enabled her to collude in Richard's abuse. What underlay this is suggested by the paradox that her memoir foregrounds speciously clear patterns of interpretation, which imply considerable knowledge of motivation and events, while, on the other hand, significant gaps in this overdetermined narrative betray Iris's ignorance about extended periods of Laura's life. I shall turn first to what is highlighted, then to what largely remains invisible.

The concatenation of events which resulted in Laura's driving off the bridge is represented in two patterns which imply a tragic inevitability. One concerns Laura's own personality and emphasizes first, her obsession with 'sacrifice', in her attempted self-immolation to persuade God to restore her mother, and sexual self--sacrifice to Richard, to prevent his betraying Alex's whereabouts; secondly, the presumptive influence of Reenie's and Mrs Hillcoate's fatalistic tales--which also impressed Iris--of lovelorn or abandoned women who drown themselves either by jumping off bridges into the Louveteau River or by letting the water take them.

The other pattern deals with Iris's accessory role in Laura's suicide. It begins with the early sibling rivalry of the sisters, exacerbated by Iris's resentful belief that Laura's birth caused their mother's decline, and the injunctions of both parents that Iris take care of Laura, placing on the young elder sister an unwelcome burden of responsibility which she is unable to refuse or negotiate. The ambivalent feelings of anger and protectiveness towards Laura which Iris discovers in or projects onto an early photograph of the two of them find expression in a series of episodes in which she is impelled either to harm or reluctantly to save Laura: her aggressive pushing of Laura off the ledge of the lily pond; her retrieval of her from drowning in the Louveteau, when she came close to letting go; and her final vindictive words to Laura. Lest obtuse readers miss these causal connections, Iris overemphasizes them: foreshadowing her role as Laura's blind assassin, with melodramatic excess she describes Laura after her tumble as 'wailing as if she'd been knifed' (p. 121); in the account of their final meeting, the earlier episode of the lily pond is explicitly recalled, before once again Iris 'pushed her off', and Laura's near-drowning in the Louveteau is mentioned.

Iris's ambivalence towards Laura increases when their competition for the affection of their first love-object, their mother--which Iris believes Laura won--is succeeded by their rivalry for another love-object: Alex. When they first meet at the button factory picnic Iris, unlike Laura, takes little interest in Alex. At the subsequent dinner party her sceptical distance is reduced as she begins to compete for him: 'I wanted his attention. He was talking mostly to Laura' (p. 230). What then happens heralds Iris's ultimately lethal jealousy of what Alex and Laura might be doing behind her back. They both disappear from Iris's view and, while Iris works at the factory and has no boyfriend, Laura and Alex are repeatedly seen together in Port Ticonderoga, so much so that local gossip refers to him as 'Miss Laura's young man' (p. 254). The nature of their relationship remains obscure: the religious Laura claims that she is trying to convert the Bolshevist Alex but Iris, who notes Laura's unsuspected capacity for duplicity, believes that she is 'pulling the wool over' Reenie's eyes and feels that Laura is 'making a fool' of her (pp. 243-44). Intriguingly, however, Alex's slightly later comments to Iris appear to support Laura's version: 'Laura and I aren't up to anything [...] She's a great kid, but she's a saint in training, and I'm not a baby snatcher' (p. 258).

It is against this background of Laura's infatuation with Alex that he takes refuge at Avilion in December 1934. Iris again assumes the protective role of the older sister, taking charge of Alex, which enables Laura to relax 'like a tired child'. In effect, Iris tries to sideline her, as her guilty self-questioning indicates: 'Was it my belief that I was doing this only to spare her-to help her, to take care of her, as I had always done? Yes. That is what I did believe' (p. 257). During his concealment the sisters play what Iris presents as a double act as Mary and Martha, Iris providing creature comforts and Laura 'devotion'. Their shared responsibility brings them temporarily closer but this changes after Alex's sexual advance to Iris. Iris decides not to confide this to Laura because this 'would be too hurtful to her' but also because 'he might have been doing a similar kind of thing with Laura. But no, I couldn't believe that. She never would have allowed it. Would she?' (p. 266). Iris's nagging suspicions continue henceforth to the end of Laura's life, as Alex remains a taboo topic of conversation. Each is tacitly aware of the other's feelings for Alex, as Laura's partitioning of the photograph of the three of them at the picnic into two photographs, each of which almost entirely excises the rival sister, confirms. But, as in the photograph, Alex separates them.

Iris's jealous insecurity is exacerbated by her ignorance of her sister's life. The period in autumn 1934 when Iris has no knowledge of Laura's movements when she is meeting Alex is succeeded by several periods in which Iris loses track of Laura: winter 1934-35 and spring 1935 in Port Ticonderoga; the week in August 1935 when Laura works at Sunnyside amusement park; autumn 1935 to April 1936, when Laura plays truant from school in Toronto; autumn 1936 to February 1937, when Laura briefly attends school again, then does charitable work; her months of incarceration at Bella Vista; the years between her escape from Bella Vista and reappearance in May 1945. During this time Iris is first occupied in the financial negotiations between Norval and Richard that lead up to her arranged marriage, then allies herself to some extent with her husband in the face of what she takes to be Laura's adolescent rebelliousness and later mental instability, and from August 1935 is herself apparently absorbed in an affair with Alex. Iris's fear that, if pressed, Laura will confront her with her own liaison with Alex partly motivates her reluctance to quiz Laura about her whereabouts. When she does try to enquire about Laura's unhappiness, in what can retrospectively be seen as 'turning-points' Laura refuses to confide in her, having learned from the experience of her earlier sexual abuse by Mr Erskine that the only person who will believe her is Reenie, not Iris.

The extent of what Iris was unaware of is exemplified by her blindness to the relationship between Reenie and Ron Hincks ('How long had that been going on, and how had I missed it?' (p. 383)), her belated realization that Reenie's pregnancy has left her no option but to get married, and her even later realization that the father of Reenie's child might not have been Ron Hincks but Norval. This last hypothesis arouses the reflection: 'I wonder if Laura knew about Reenie and Father, if indeed there was anything to know. I wonder if that is among the many things she knew, but never told. Such a thing is entirely possible' (p. 476). The place where Iris confronts the many things which she suspects Laura knew but never told is BA, in which Iris projected an imaginary life for her sister, masquerading alias Laura.

The fact that Iris's 1998-99 memoir is a first-person narrative, whose statements usually cannot be corroborated by external sources, raises the question of Iris's reliability as a narrator. It is theoretically possible that Iris is lying when she claims to be the author of BA and that this act of usurpation is the last stage of her sibling rivalry, motivated by jealousy of the affair with Alex which Laura's novel records. Were one to accept this hypothesis, then her memoir would be unmasked as an elaborate (self-)deception, rendering Atwood's text a Nabokovian game with the reader (with perhaps the additional possibility that Iris herself merely fantasized her own supposed affair with Alex). This extreme self-referentiality seems, however, less probable than an interpretation which acknowledges in the sisters' intertwined lives the kind of doubling of female roles characteristic of Atwood's earlier novels. I have therefore assumed that Iris was indeed the author of BA.

Who should be identified as the 'she' who is referred to with deliberate pronominal obliquity in BA could be resolved only through recourse to the other textual material in Atwood's collage. It seems likely that the placing of the newspaper extracts is not accidental and that they thus enable the conjectural dating of the successive stages in the affair between 'he' and 'she', which are often followed by another version of the same events in Iris's memoir. Unfortunately, however, this circumstantial evidence, including what one can learn or infer from Iris's memoir about the movements of the two sisters in the 1930s, does not enable either sister to be eliminated entirely from possible identification as 'she'. Instead, it seems that, in a tangled mixture of reality and fantasy, Iris, supposedly adopting Laura's voice in an act of literary ventriloquism, intended to convey not just a disguised record of her own affair with Alex but also what she imagined to have been her sister's affair with Alex during the extended periods in which Laura disappeared from Iris's view.

This psychological situation is conveyed by Laura's modifications to Elwood Murray's photograph of the love-triangle, in which the sisters had appeared as mirror images of each other on either side of Alex. In each of Laura's duplicated but mutilated photographs of the picnic the ghostly hand of the other, excised sister is present on the margins, as if to indicate that, although the focus is alternately on one sister and Alex, 'the hand of the other one' 'is always in the picture whether seen or not' (p. 631). This shifting perspective is emphasized in Iris's rather heavy-handed insistence that they wrote the 1947 novel together: 'It's a left-handed book. That's why one of us is always out of sight, whichever way you look at it' (p. 627). Fittingly, therefore, the Prologue to BA begins by describing what seems to be Iris's version of this photograph, hidden in her book Perennials for the Rock Garden, while in the alternative version of this passage in the Epilogue it could also be Laura's photograph that is described.

Within the narrative itself there is a frequent slippage between Iris and Laura as the possible referent of 'she'. The initial chapters of BA, which record the beginning of the affair, contain so little deictic information--unspecific park benches, the rubbish-strewn waste ground beneath a bridge--that although (as Iris indicates on p. 624) their context is presumably the period after August 1935 in Toronto, which marked the onset of Iris's affair with Alex and the possible resurgence of his relationship with Laura, they could also evoke the autumn of 1934 in Port Ticonderoga, when Laura met Alex 'down by the soup kitchen' and 'on more than one park bench' (p. 242). Later, following on from Laura's statement in January 1936 that she saw Alex Thomas the other day (p. 412), in the chapter 'Carnivore stories', set in April 1936 when Laura is playing truant, 'she' asks 'him': 'Are you ever unfaithful to me?' (p. 424). His evasively disingenuous reply corresponds to the tale which, on the Queen Mary in May 1936, she remembers his having told her of the two peach women of Aa'a--one a sexpot, the other more serious-minded and open to theological discussion-who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mary and Martha who looked after Alex in the attic at Avilion. The situation in 'The Top Hat Grill' in autumn 1936--when Laura is dressing up in Iris's clothes and is later suspected by Iris to have been meeting Alex--where a pregnant 'she' bids farewell to 'him' before he leaves to fight in Spain, could also apply to both sisters at that time. There is a similar ambiguity in 'The tower', which takes place presumably in late spring 1937, where the woman's environment and state of mind suggest Iris's post-natal depression after Aimee's birth but could also apply to Laura's drugged confinement in the Bella Vista clinic in the aftermath of her forced abortion. Likewise, with the exception of 'The telegram', the emotional states evoked in all the subsequent chapters could have been experienced by both sisters.

Similar ambiguities surround the parentage of Iris's and Laura's babies. Winifred maintains to Iris that the 'hysterical' Laura had to be incarcerated in Bella Vista because 'She appeared to believe that the baby you're going to have is actually hers, in some way she was unable to explain' (p. 525). Laura presumably feels that the baby is 'actually hers' because she accurately intuits that the father is Alex Thomas, with whom she feels that she rather than Iris might appropriately have a child, whereas, in an ironic mirroring of the sisters' situations, Laura herself is presumably carrying Richard's baby, which would more properly be Iris's. We never learn, however, whether it was indeed Richard rather than Alex who was the father of Laura's baby. Confusion over the authorship of the 1947 novel leads Iris's daughter Aimee to believe that she is a changeling and her true parents are Laura and Alex, a claim which frightens Iris; in this memoir in which history repeats itself, it is perhaps significant that from 1940 onwards Laura waits for Alex's return in Halifax, where in 1915 Liliana and Norval had conceived a child just before his departure for the world war of that generation.

To elucidate what motivated Iris's deliberate interweaving of herself, Laura, and Alex in BA, I shall now conclude by examining thematic links between The Blind Assassin and Atwood's contemporaneous Negotiating with the Dead. In this Atwood discusses 'the most famous poem ever written by a Canadian', John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields', which insists that the 'dead make demands [...] and you can't just dismiss either the dead or the demands' (Negotiating, pp. 147-49). Iris's recollection of McCrae's war poem, which is alluded to or quoted on three occasions in her memoir, leads her to a similar conclusion: 'Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them' (p. 621). This has several implications for her. One is the need for expiation: as in Cat's Eye, where Atwood's protagonist must also confront her unresolved feelings of guilt for having blindly avenged on her sisterly counterpart her own earlier experience of victimization, Iris must seek to appease the 'Cries of the thirsty ghosts' (p. 621) which haunt her: Reenie and Laura.

Her second reaction to the dead is one of indignant protest on their behalf. In the Zycron narrative and in her memoir Iris deplores the vain self-sacrifices made by her mother, herself, and Laura, who had naively believed the dominant ideology of Canada's patriarchal elite 'that the welfare of the entire kingdom depended on their selflessness' (p. 36). Singling out this element of Atwood's novel, J. Brooks Bouson interprets the book as 'an unsettling cautionary tale', 'a trauma narrative focusing on the sexual self-sacrifice of women under a patriarchal system'. (10) But by reducing The Blind Assassin to a 'feminist' indictment of a monolithic, undifferentiated 'masculinist culture', Bouson leaves out half the story. The first act of commemoration in the novel was not Iris's self-narratives but Norval's Weary Soldier war memorial, intended to refute the deceitful pieties of those who had demanded that the statue be inscribed 'For Those Who Willingly Made the Supreme Sacrifice' (p. 180). Not only the main female characters but also the four principal male characters who were killed or maimed in two world wars were 'sacrificed' because of their uncritical complicity with the ideology of 'hegemonic masculinity'. (11) Iris's self-narratives show the persistence of such 'generic' wars, in which 'Nobody won', from 'his' retelling of the destruction of Jericho and Ai in the Book of Joshua to the televised conflagrations of the 1990s; they have a counterpart in the internecine family conflicts in which Iris, blindly pursuing 'justice', gains a Pyrrhic victory. (12) But her narratives are more tragic than 'feminist' in ascribing this self-lacerating suffering to something primeval: 'the great leaden suffocating order of things, the great spike-wheeled chariot, the blind tyrants, the blind gods' (p. 528).

This leads to Iris's third response to the dead: to memorialize them not just out of the acrimonious desire to perpetuate wrongs but also from a yearning to restore and preserve the loved ones she has lost. In keeping with Atwood's thesis in Negotiating with the Dead, it seems that for Iris writing originates in mutability and mortality. This is conveyed in BA in a sequence of parables set against the background of wars in Abyssinia and Spain. In April 1936 'she' and 'he' debate how the Sakiel-Norn story should end. She favours a happy ending, whereas in his version the 'entire culture' of Sakiel-Norn 'is wiped from the universe'. Then, in an ironic echo of the close of Paradise Lost, the two lovers 'hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, through the western mountains take their solitary way'. But their faith in providence is misplaced and they are devoured by wolves. The moral, he insists, is that to be 'true to life' stories must contain literal or metaphorical wolves (pp. 420-24). The following month she recalls how earlier that year when she had pleaded for a happy story, he had teased her with another rewriting of Genesis: a macho fantasy of the Paradise Garden, in which Will and Boyd are seduced by the servile Peach Women of the planet Aa'a (pp. 432-36). The chauvinist earthlings become dissatisfied when they realize that the crystal pleasure-dome which encloses Aa'a is actually 'a big transparent tit' in which they are trapped, having effectively regressed to the oral phase. They conclude that 'It's Paradise, but we can't get out of it. And anything you can't get out of is Hell'. As in his earlier tale, 'Alien on Ice', 'he' is parodying Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan', which supplied the theme of the fashionable Xanadu ball which Iris attended in January 1936. His implicit target, indicated in Iris's recollection in her memoir of how in 1936 she joyfully inhabited her 'pleasure-dome' with him(p. 411), is what he takes to be the naive complacency which she shares with the Peach Women. His satire seems to have the desired effect, for 'she' too becomes indignant at the men's situation:

Within weeks, 'he' also has left the pleasure-dome, to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

After his death in Holland in 1944, the 'Epilogue' to BA returns to his stories and to the photograph with which both the 'Prologue' and their love affair began. It concludes: 'The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there's no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It's loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road' (p. 632). What motivated Iris in writing this story of 'loss and regret and misery and yearning' as a 'memorial' to Alex, Laura, and herself is suggested in Chapter 6 of Negotiating with the Dead. It argues that 'not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality-by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead' (Negotiating, p. 140). In these terms, Iris can be seen as a representative writer, driven by 'the quest for a lost beloved' and the desire to bring that person 'back to the land of the living' through the 'life of a sort [which] can be bestowed by writing'. Atwood cites Borges's suggestion that the Divine Comedy 'was composed by Dante mainly so he could get a glimpse of the dead Beatrice, and bring her back to life in his poem. It is because he is writing about her, and only because he is writing about her, that Beatrice is able to exist again, in the mind of writer and reader' (Negotiating, pp. 152, 154).

In both her self-narratives Iris, adopting one of 'his' catchphrases, evokes what is referred to as 'another dimension of space', a 'parallel universe' in which 'what didn't happen' may be projected as a virtual reality. (13) There, fleetingly, the loved and the lost (above all, Alex, and Laura as Proserpine (pp. 509-10) and as Dido (pp. 608-10)) are 'able to exist again, in the mind of writer and reader'. There is, I believe, a similarity with Ian McEwan's Atonement, in which the conscience-stricken female narrator, unable to make amends to her sister for her own act of injustice which blighted the lives of her sister and her lover, tries to atone by drafting in 1947 a novel in which they are given a fictional afterlife together, in which, despite their premature deaths, they will 'exist as my inventions'. (14) So, in the ambiguous 'she' of BA, Iris accords not just herself but Laura too the relationship with Alex which she desired but was unable to realize.

It is therefore appropriate that the interplay in Iris's memorial and fictional constructions between the past and the different narrative forms in which it is imagined and represented ends with her own self-effacing retreat into a merely virtual reality, 'another dimension of space'. For, as she acknowledges in her envoi to her intended reader, her granddaughter Sabrina, 'I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that--if anywhere--is the only place I will be' (p. 637).

(1) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; repr. London: Virago, 2003.

(2) The Blind Assassin (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000; repr. London: Virago, 2001), p. 292. Further references to this edition are given in the text.

(3) The Postmodern History Reader, ed. by Keith Jenkins (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), offers a convenient, if partisan, overview of positions in this debate.

(4) Margaret Atwood, 'In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction', American Historical Review, 103 (1998), 1503-16 (p. 1515). Atwood emulates Robert Browning's treatment of a Florentine murder, The Ring and the Book (1868-69), which furnishes an epigraph for Chapter 5 of Alias Grace. Her position resembles that of A. S. Byatt, also influenced by Browning, in Passions of the Mind: Selected Writings (London: Chatto @ Windus, 1991; repr. New York: Turtle Bay Books, 1992), pp. 16-18.

(5) To avoid confusion in references to The Blind Assassin, I refer to Atwood's novel itself using this full title and to the novel-within-the-novel, The Blind Assassin (New York, 1947), in the abbreviated form BA.

(6) Ulric Neisser, 'Self-Narratives: True and False', in The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative, ed. by Ulric Neisser and Robyn Fivush (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 1-18 (p. 2).

(7) The term 'false self' is used here in the sense developed by D.W. Winnicott.

(8) I allude to D. H. Lawrence, 'Morality and the Novel' (1925), in A Selection from 'Phoenix', ed. by A. A. H. Inglis (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 175-81 (p. 177).

(9) McCrae's poem is also quoted in Cat's Eye (Toronto: McClelland @ Stewart, 1988; repr. London: Virago, 1990), pp. 106-07.

(10) '"A Commemoration of Wounds Endured and Resented": Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin as Feminist Memoir', Critique, 44 (Spring 2003), 251-69 (pp. 251, 255, 257). In 'Margaret Atwood's Discourse of Nation and National Identity in the 1990s', in The Rhetoric of Canadian Writing, ed. by Conny Steenman-Marcusse (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 199-216 (pp. 211-15), Coral Ann Howells locates The Blind Assassin within Atwood's other recent demystifications of English-Canadian history.

(11) On 'hegemonic masculinity', see Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee, 'Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity', in The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies, ed. by Harry Brod (Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1987), pp. 63-100 (pp. 91-95); and Connell's later work.

(12) See pp. 13-14, 93, 573, 582, 607-08.

(13) Compare pp. 11, 12, 19, 429, 436, 522, 569, 574, 611.

(14) Ian McEwan, Atonement (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001; repr. London: Vintage, 2002), p. 371.


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Author:Robinson, Alan
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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