Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. While the book was released in its original language (Japanese) in 1994, it was translated into English and published last year – a gap of nearly 25 years. And yet nothing feels outdated about this novel, its themes are quite relevant even today.
At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.
Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.
The narrator’s mother was one of those whose memories remained intact and was therefore captured by the police. In the opening pages our narrator harks back to her childhood and recalls a particular moment with her mother when the latter displays a chest of drawers containing objects that no longer exist on the island. These objects – perfume bottle, ribbon, bell, stamp – fill our narrator with a sense of wonder but she cannot conjure up any memories, even though her mother is nostalgic about them. The fate of the narrator’s mother after her refusal to conform is not surprising and very soon the father, an ornithologist, is also whisked away.
Indeed, one of the first disappearances on the island the reader is introduced to is birds.
I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.
Meanwhile, in the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R also cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.
Enlisting the help of an old caretaker, who is like family, she builds a secret, functional room in her own house. R installs himself there and gradually adjusts to this new life.
The rest of the novel then revolves around the fate of all the three – the narrator, the caretaker and R – and whether they will be able to hold on to this secret.
Objects, meanwhile, continue to vanish at an alarming rate to the point where one of the disappearances impacts our narrator directly – novels (‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’)
At first, she has no issues losing her memory of things and adjusting to the new normal. But this becomes increasingly difficult in her subsequent interactions with R, who coaxes and encourages her to understand the significance of her memories and value them.
This specifically comes to the fore when one of the objects made to vanish is photographs, an occurrence which disturbs R greatly.
As I was gathering all the albums and photos in the house, R made a desperate effort to stop me.
“Photographs are precious…They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”
“Yes, I know, and that’s why I’ve always been very careful with them. They brought back wonderful memories every time I looked at them, memories that made my heart ache. As I wander through my sparse forest of memories, photographs have been my most reliable compass. But it’s time to move on. It’s terrible to lose a compass, but I have no strength to resist the disappearances.”
Interspersed with this narrative is a glimpse into the novel, our narrator is writing. It’s about a young typist who has lost her voice, is in a relationship with her teacher and can only communicate by typing out the words. But what begins as a simple love story morphs into something darker involving capture and submission. In terms of atmosphere and the theme of control there are similarities between our narrator’s novel and her real life. But other than that, I am not sure that this ‘novel within a novel’ really added much to the overall storytelling.
In stark contrast to the feral tone in Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. One way of looking at the novel is that it is a statement on totalitarian regimes and their impact on ordinary people – there are those who adapt, those who resist and go into hiding. These are themes and reactions universal even today.
But other than the one chapter where our narrator visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and experiences firsthand the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the place, the novel is more concerned with the significance of memory loss and what it means to people in everyday life.
Ultimately who stands to lose more – the people who easily forget and have nothing to hold on to, or those who remember and possibly carry a heavier burden because of it?
The Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer is not new to me. A few years ago I had read her novel The Loft, which I had loved at the time, but I knew that her best regarded work was the dystopian and feminist classic The Wall. The current lockdown, therefore, seemed like the ideal time to delve into it and what a brilliant novel it turned out to be.
The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love.
The narrator is an unnamed middle-aged woman and when the novel opens, she is in an Alpine hunting lodge writing about the two and a half years she has spent in the forest, and the events leading upto it.
I’ve taken on this task to keep me from staring into the gloom and being frightened. For I am frightened. Fear creeps up on me from all sides, and I don’t want to wait until it gets to me and overpowers me. I shall write until darkness falls, and this new, unfamiliar work should make my mind tired, empty and drowsy. I’m not afraid of morning, only of the long, gloomy afternoons.
These events which are recounted in a couple of pages are simply this – the woman accompanies her cousin Luise, her brother-in-law Hugo and their dog Lynx (a Bavarian bloodhound) to spend the summer in the couple’s well-equipped hunting lodge in the Alpine forest. One evening, Luisa and Hugo head down to the village, but our narrator and Lynx stay behind in the lodge. The next day, our narrator realizes that the couple is not yet back which strikes her as quite strange.
While taking Lynx out for a walk, she bumps against an obstruction she can’t see and is stunned.
Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.
Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs. Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.
She can see on the other side of this invisible wall, and what she notices is alarming. In one of the huts, on the opposite side, the dwellers have been turned into stone. Clearly, an unimaginable catastrophe has struck and the narrator and Lynx have been spared because they were not on the other side when it occurred. In a way, the narrator is possibly the last woman standing although she has not yet grasped the significance of this.
Against such a terrifying backdrop, the rest of the book then is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest.
It is a source of comfort to her that the dog Lynx is by her side, and on one of their expeditions she comes across a cow who has also survived and who she brings back to the lodge.
At this stage, the narrator still harbours hope of being rescued but meanwhile she must adapt to her new circumstances, carry on with day to day living and caring for her animals. And that involves some hard, physical work.
She converts a cabin into a byre for Bella the cow. She learns to milk the animal so that she can feed herself, Lynx and a cat who is also now part of this small, odd family. She manages to find a patch of land where she can grow potatoes and beans. Then there is the hay harvest that she must attend to, chopping and stocking wood supplies for the winter and cooking meals everyday however meager.
These are activities the narrator notes down in her diary, and it becomes a source of the tale that she is writing for the reader.
The work is not easy and the fact that the woman has not done it before makes it all the more harder. But she manages to get it done even when it begins taking a toll on her body.
As you can see, there is not much in terms of plot per se, but The Wall makes for a terrifying and gripping read simply because the woman is in unchartered territory with unknown dangers lurking around and the reader is on the edge wondering how she will make it through.
It’s her love for her animals and her instincts to take care of them that keep her going. But naturally, she is beset by fears and forebodings. And she is also prone to bouts of depression, understandably so, fuelled by her circumstances and also changes in weather that oscillates wildly between periods of calmness and violent storms and cold winters.
There are successes – she helps Bella deliver a healthy calf, the potato field sprouts a good supply of potatoes, which means that she and her animals are never hungry. Plus, she manages to hunt deers too, an activity she loathes and never gets used to, but one which she must carry out to provide meat for the dog.
And there are setbacks too – coming to terms with the loss of some of her animals which inevitably happens despite her best efforts to care for them, and surviving an illness in the dead of winter.
As she is writing her account, the narrator is of course focusing on the physical aspects of survival. But she also talks about the thoughts swirling in her head about life, about caring, the differences between her old life and new, and the meaning of it all. To me, these were some of the most quotable and striking paragraphs in the novel. Here’s one…
If I think today of the woman I once was, the woman with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age, I feel little sympathy for her. But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly. After all, she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. When she was young she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries. Only a giantess would have been able to free herself, and in no respect was she a giantess, never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.
The deep bonding with her animals is one of the highlights of the book, so sensitively portrayed. I loved how the narrator had such a wonderful connection with Bella the cow.
I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there is something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living.
Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction. It takes twenty years to bring up a child, and ten seconds to kill it.
Despite the bleak circumstances, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes The Wall so extraordinary. At first, she expects to be rescued and go back to her old way of life. But as the seasons roll one after the other and the months turn into years, she comes to terms with her new reality and learns to accept it. The setbacks hurt her deeply but she finds the strength to take it in her stride and look forward to new beginnings.
In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months.
I knew The Wall was highly regarded, and I can confirm that it is every bit as good as everyone says it is.
We live in unprecedented times. March has felt like an unusually long month, one in which the Coronavirus Crisis has worryingly deepened leading to higher anxiety levels. As I write this today, there remains a big question mark over when this crisis will end or fade away. Will things go back to normal, will the world ever be the same again?
Meanwhile, the mandate to stay home means that there is more time on my hands to read books (only if I stop incessantly checking my phone). But rather than read lighter fare, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
The central premise and the characters…
The premise in Station Eleven is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.
When the novel opens, it is the last day of any normalcy in Northern America before the deadly virus encompasses the region killing millions. Arthur Leander, a renowned actor is performing on stage in a Toronto Theatre. While delivering his lines in the midst of Act 4 of King Lear, he suddenly collapses and dies on stage.
A person from the audience Jeevan Chaudhary – training to be a medical doctor – rushes onto the stage and tries to perform CPR on Leander but to no avail. Meanwhile, Jeevan spots a young girl in the wings, around 8 years old – Kirsten Raymonde – who is shaken by what she has seen, and who he tries to comfort. That is one thread of the novel and the core of the first section.
In the second section, we then move forward around twenty years after the Georgian Flu killed most of America. Kirsten Raymonde is now walking the length of the country with a band of travellers and actors called the Travelling Symphony. They visit little towns and settlements and entertain the people by performing Shakespearean plays.
In this way, the novel switches back and forth between the storylines in the world before the Flu and after.
There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.
A lot of the book focuses on Arthur Leander, his path to success and riches and the consequences of his failed marriages. Many other characters populate the novel but they all in some form or other are associated with Arthur Leander. There’s Miranda, Arthur’s first wife (he goes on to marry twice and also fathers a son in his second marriage called Tyler), who never really settles down to being the glamourous wife of an actor – the endless parties and media scrutiny. Being a graphic artist, she finds solace in her comic-book project called Station Eleven – a sort of a science fiction series featuring Dr Eleven and his adversaries from the Undersea who escape the Earth through a wormhole when the planet is attacked.
There’s Jeevan Chaudhary who just before the end of the world so to speak was training to be a paramedical but had dabbled in various jobs before particularly in tabloid journalism. Another character is Clark Thompson who strikes up a friendship with Leander when both are aspiring actors in their teens, but subsequently goes on to a corporate career.
In the new world, within the Travelling Symphony, we are introduced to several characters – some who were born much before the Flu and therefore were witness to both the worlds, and others who were born after. The actors fear the prophet and have to grapple with his extreme views and his band of religious fanatics.
Throughout the book, all these characters and their storylines intermingle.
The Old World and the New…
One of the themes that the author explores and particularly struck a chord with me was the destruction of the world as we know it and adjusting to the new. In the world that we live in, we pretty much take things for granted. It is a way of life we begin to yearn for and whose significance is sharply brought to focus only when it is destroyed or taken away from us. Through her characters, Emily St John Mandel also increasingly emphasizes on the marvels of technology, especially when it comes to travel and communication, things which were in abundance in the old world and pretty much unthinkable in the new.
More importantly, can people who were born in the old world and used to its ways ever adjust to the changed reality of the present world?
Some towns, as I (Kirsten) was saying, some towns are like this one, where they want to talk about what happened, about the past. Other towns, discussion of the past is discouraged. We went to a place once where the children didn’t know the world had ever been different, although you’d think all the rusted-out automobiles and telephone wires would give them a clue.
This is a recurrent theme in Miranda’s comic-book project as well where Dr Eleven and his adversaries are hiding in the deep reaches of space. But while Dr Eleven has accepted this change in circumstances, the inhabitants of the Undersea yearn to go back to Earth, to a way of life they once had.
What do you want to be remembered for?
The pursuit of fame and a meaningful life is also a topic the author dwells on. Arthur Leander wants fame, works hard for it, gets it and yet is an unhappy man in his final years. Will he be remembered for his successful career or his failed personal life?
There is also a striking conversation that Clark Thompson has with a woman in the old world where she articulates the perils of being stuck in a job that one is not enjoying that shakes Thompson profoundly.
“I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction…
You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’ clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”
Objects, motifs and haunting scenes…
In the first chapter, in those final hours when the reality of the virus is beginning to hit home, there is a scene where Jeevan heads to the supermarket and begins to stock up (hoard?) on various goods and essentials; which was uncannily similar to what we have been witnessing during the present coronavirus crisis.
On that very day, a plane lands in Severn City Airport. But no passengers disembark. It is implied that a passenger down with the flu must have infected the others and so it has been quarantined away from the airport. Twenty years later, the plane continues to be parked there.
While there are some characters who find themselves navigating both the worlds, certain objects find their way in the new reality too. For instance, Miranda’s (Arthur’s first wife) is the creator of the Station Eleven comics in the old world, and they are in Kirsten’s possession twenty years later. A beautiful glass paperweight that Clark gifts to Arthur and Miranda is also with Kirsten now. As is a book whose contents include letters written by Arthur to an unnamed person ‘V’ detailing certain aspects of his personal life. In the new world, there is the Museum of Civilization which exhibits various mementos and things from the old world which are novelties in a post-flu world.
Station Eleven is excellent, but to label it a science fiction novel would in some sense be inaccurate. Yes, the central premise is certainly dystopian – a lethal virus contaminates a world and destroys humanity. But the author is much more interested in the human angle of this development and how people adapt to two different realities rather than describing the minute details of an altered world. It is what makes the novel very rich, immersive and absorbing. My only quibble is that some threads were tied up too neatly in the end (I have begun to appreciate ambiguity more).
But that in no way takes away the fact that Station Eleven is a vividly imagined and unique novel, one that will simmer in the mind for quite some time.
The first Margaret Atwood I read many years ago was The Blind Assassin, and I remember being blown away by it.
Subsequently, I delved into her novels such as Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle – all excellent. But The Blind Assassin remains my favourite.
There was still more of her work to explore, but as other authors clamoured for my attention, Atwood was pushed to the back shelves.
And then the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released, winning accolades and critical acclaim.
I have yet to see the series. However, it gave be the push that I needed to finally lay my hands on another Atwood novel. Also, whenever there is a TV/film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first.
So here goes…
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…
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.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel and has become a much talked about book recently, not only because it has been adapted into a highly acclaimed TV series but also because of how its themes eerily mirror what we are seeing in the Trump era.
In the first half of the book, Atwood takes her time in setting up the story – the structure of Gilead, and the characters that people this oppressive regime, their roles and functions.
Gilead is a tyrannical system, where rules have to be strictly followed to the tee.
Within, there is also a dominant hierarchical system. Broadly speaking, the men mostly control the women. But even within each gender group, there are tiers.
For instance, in a typical household, there is the Commander with his wife. If the wife can’t conceive, there is a Handmaid assigned to the Commander, and her role is to breed children. The household also has a Martha, who is generally the housekeeper.
Women married to the poorer men are called Econowives. Essentially, every woman, depending upon her function, is expected to follow a certain dress code. The Handmaids wear the red dress with the white headgear.
In the novel, the protagonist is the Handmaid called Offred. We are never explicitly told what Offred’s real name was before Gilead came into being. The name is a derivative of the male name Fred. So, Offred means she is Commander Fred’s Handmaid. In other words, Handmaids do not have an identity of their own. Also, the name is not unique. So if the Handmaid is transferred, the next Handmaid taking her place will also take on the same name. This itself gives the first indication that women in Gilead are controlled, are the property of men with no individuality of their own.
Gilead is a society with a strict set of rules and disciplines even when it comes to sex. Offred’s sex sessions with the Commander, called the Ceremony, are scheduled as per calendar (as is the case for the other Handmaids in other households too). Obviously, these are no passionate encounters by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Commander’s Wife is also present on these occasions in a kind of a weird ménage-a-trois.
All this is one part of the Gilead set-up (there’s more), and as I mentioned earlier a large part of the first half of the novel goes into greater depths into the inner workings of the regime, painting a detailed picture of its rituals.
Interspersed in all this is the protagonist Offred’s story. Offred is among the first generation of Handmaids who has seen both worlds – a free United States, and subsequently a controlling Gilead.
Being alone in her own room gives Offred time on her hands to reminisce about the past, the people she was close too.
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
We learn that she was in a relationship with a man who was called Luke then, and they had a child together. But Offred has no clue of their fate in the current regime. Then there is her relationship with her mother (a difficult one), and the carefree times with her best friend Moira (a nonconformist and a rebel then as she is even now).
Those were the times when they wanted a brighter future…
We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?
It was also when they thought about love…
The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.
And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.
There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.
In the current regime, however, she does as she is told, doing her best to remain as ordinary as possible, to blend in. And there is the fervent hope that she becomes pregnant so that a nasty fate does not befall her.
There are other important characters in the story. Moira, of course. And Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, who is also a Handmaid but in another household.
But the key ones are Commander Fred, the Commander’s Wife (Serena Joy), and the Guardian Nick, who is the Commander’s chauffeur.
It’s in the second half of the novel where the pace of the story picks up, the tension and terror mounts, and propels Offred’s fate. For starters, the Commander, one day, expects Offred to visit him in his study, which is forbidden as per rules of the regime. Is he attracted to her, seeking a night of passion?
Then there is Serena Joy, who despises Offred for obvious reasons, but has a plan which she puts forward to Offred, convinced it will be beneficial to both of them.
How will all of these developments determine Offred’s future?
The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that is brimming with themes and ideas.
The central theme of the novel is how a state chooses to control women in society giving rise to gender inequality. In a patriarchal world, continuation of the male line is considered to be of paramount importance. But this power rests with women because they are the ones giving birth. Therefore, there is this need to subdue women by exerting control over their reproductive rights. They have to breed no matter what…the fact that they can have a choice is denied them. This is true in the Gilead regime in the novel, and even in the real world, especially in those regions across the globe which have an abysmal record when it comes to women’s rights.
The other core subject is the power dynamics between men and women, and the horror of a woman losing her independence to a man. There is one particularly powerful and poignant section when Gilead starts taking control, and women all of a sudden begin to lose their rights and their independence…making Offred dependent for a short while on Luke.
You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.
It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.
I guess you get all the money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.
That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to?
What’s the matter? He said.
I don’t know, I said.
We still have…he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying ‘we’, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.
We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
We are not each other’s anymore. Instead, I am his.
One of the themes in the novel is how we take things for granted, not appreciating the good moments or the importance of what we already have until it is too late.
We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?
Ultimately, The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel about rebellion, notably by the women. Each of the women in the story choose to resist the stifling and controlling environment in their own way. The obvious rebel is Moira – gutsy and daring, as is evident in her attempts to flee the regime. But there is also Ofglen, Offred’s walking partner, who later reveals to the latter that she is working for the Resistance (an underground movement), while maintaining an outward appearance of docility.
I believe in the resistance as I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.
But what about Offred? Offred is a strong woman in her own right, even if she is not as fiery as her best friend Moira. At first, she diligently follows the rules set out for her, but as the book progresses, Offred gradually undergoes a transformation – it’s a subtle one – as she takes greater risks in working the system to meet her own ends.
I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.
Again, what will all this mean for Offred’s future?
The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.
Which brings me to how the novel ends. I will obviously not reveal what happens, but according to me, Atwood has given the novel a brilliant ending simply because of the ambiguity surrounding it.
There is a postscript which follows, which I thought was unnecessary because it attempted to give an explanation of what went on in the story while not claiming to provide any certain answers. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the novel could have been better without it.
But that is just a minor quibble. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale remains a powerful read with much to think about especially with what is going on in our world today.
I will end with a quote from an introduction given by Margaret Atwood herself, in my lovely Folio Society edition, of what she was attempting to put across in her novel…
The Handmaid’s Tale has often been called a ‘female dystopia’, but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom…
I had meaning to read Anna Kavan – specifically Ice – for quite some time now but the tags ‘science fiction’ and ‘difficult book’ probably made me hesitant. But then I saw new versions of this novel being released by Peter Owen Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. These brilliant covers finally gave me the push I needed.
And as I kept turning the pages, I had to admit that all my prejudices were unfounded. Indeed, it dawned on me that to simply label Ice as science fiction was plain lazy, because there is so much more going on. Anyway, to cut a long story short; I absolutely loved Ice.
Ice is one of those books that are easy to read but difficult to write about.
Here’s what Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote in a foreword to the book:
Anna Kavan’s Ice is a work of literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type.
Essentially it’s a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred.
When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves.
I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar.
We learn that the narrator and this girl were seeing each other in earlier days, although for a brief period.
I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.
There’s more to her…
Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.
We then learn that she suddenly ditches the narrator and marries another man. The narrator goes to meet the couple at their home, and sees that she remains in a state of terror and submission in the marriage as well.
Later the husband tells the narrator that the girl has escaped, and from then onwards, the narrator decides to make his quest for finding the girl his sole purpose, above anything else.
This is also where the novel begins to take on a dream like quality, and as a reader you are strangely compelled to go along with the flow rather than try to make any sense of it.
Throughout the book, the sequence keeps on repeating…the narrator boards a ship, he reaches a town where he sees the girl only to lose her again.
For instance, in the initial pages, the narrator reaches an unnamed town and gathers that it is governed by the Warden, a powerful and brutal man. He knows that the girl is with him and makes a request to see her, but his efforts prove futile.
It’s a recurring pattern, as the girl continues to remain elusive. And yet, the narrator can’t let go of her. He wants to find her at all cost, even when during some moments of rationality, he acknowledges that he needs to abandon this desperate need to go after her.
Ice then is a tale of male obsession and desire, also giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into female objectification.
It’s a book that is disorienting and defies logic and that is precisely its strength. It’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not.
Ice also has streaks of science fiction elements running through it. The world Kavan has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice. It is a world on the brink of an apocalypse. It’s also in the description of this environment, where Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers…
She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging ring of frigid, fiery colossal waves about to collapse upon her.
Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling lava had poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path.
There are many set pieces in this novel each with more or less the same result, but it’s where Kavan’s writing clearly excels. One such section to me was quite hypnotic. It was when on learning about the ice catastrophe, the Warden flees his country and forces the girl to go with him.
It was incomprehensible to her, this extraordinary flight that went on and on. The forest went on forever, the silence went on and on. The snow stopped, but the cold went on and even increased, as if some icy exudation from the black trees congealed beneath them. Hour after hour passed before a little reluctant daylight filtered down through the roof of branches, revealing nothing but gloomy masses of firs, dead and living trees tangled together, a dead bird often caught in the branches, as if the tree had caught it deliberately.
Just as Ice is an incredibly fascinating read so is its author’s profile. Kavan was married twice and once her second marriage ended, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns for which she was confined to a clinic in Switzerland.
Kavan also suffered bouts of mental illness and was addicted to heroin for a considerable period. In a sense, there are influences of this in her novels. The hallucinatory effect of Ice probably corresponds to the unreal, surreal world that exists for a drug addict.
Given that Ice refuses to follow conventional norms of fiction or storytelling, it is challenging to define it. But if you are willing to accept its arbitrariness, and its strangeness, then the experience of reading it is as exhilarating as any whiff of joint.
Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.