My maid is spying on me

Margaret Atwood: "The Witnesses" Evil aunts overthrow a dark regime

Margaret Atwood is one of the few authors who has the honor of turning her name into an adjective, even during her lifetime. Atwoodian in English means a particularly grim look into the future of the human species. It looks bleak because we are going to destroy this planet. Only the darkly grounded humor that resonates in Atwoodian may keep us from losing our composure. Margaret Atwood loves stories from the end of the world. For her trilogy MaddAddam she conjured up a deluge, her three-volume saga of Oryx and Crake is set after a plague that has wiped out most of humanity.

The procession of the maids

And then there are the two books that are currently on everyone's lips: "The Maid's Report" and the serialized novel "The Witnesses". Atwood did research for the "Maid's Report" in Orwell in 1984 in Berlin, and published it in 1985, a year before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But despite its permeability to the big questions of our time, "The Maid's Report" was long regarded as special feminist furniture in literary studies as well. This novel became a world best seller thanks to the TV series by Bruce Miller, which was broadcast in 2017, the third and, according to reports, penultimate season has been shot. Above all, the procession of the maids with their long red robes and white bonnets has given wings to the imagination of our present, which is affectionate with images. If there are demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere these days against the reform of the abortion law, women like to wear this costume. Margaret Atwood's literary imagery has thus become part of our reality. A look back at the original confirms how well this osmosis works. Here you can hear Desfred, one of the first to wear the red robe:

"A figure, red with white wings around its face, a figure like me, an indescribable woman in red carrying a basket, comes towards me across the brick sidewalk.

'Blessed be the fruit,' she says to me - the usual greeting between us.

'May the Lord open us,' I reply - the usual answer.

Now we're walking down the same streets, red couples, and no man shouts profanity after us, speaks to us, and touches us. Nobody whistles.

There is more than one form of freedom, said Aunt Lydia, freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy it was freedom too. Now comes the freedom of. Don't underestimate them. "

The fictional state of Gilead was built on the ruins of a liberal society in North America after a war. It is an authoritarian state of God that bears the characteristics of American puritanism. Men wield all power, women have no rights. They are not allowed to read or write, have no property. If they are still capable of childbearing, they can become handmaids; they are assigned to the most powerful men in the state as serfs. Because the survival of mankind is not guaranteed, a nuclear and biochemical catastrophe has reduced the fertility of men and women. The Gilead Society justifies polygamy with reference to the Old Testament figure of Rachel, who gave her husband her maid Bilha to cohabit because she could not have children herself.

"Create children for me, if not, I will die. See, there is my maid Bilhah: Go to her, that she may give birth on my lap and I will be built up by her.

It was read to us every morning at breakfast when we sat in the high school cafeteria and ate porridge with cream and brown sugar. You get the best, do you realize that? Said Aunt Lydia. We are at war, everything is rationed. You are spoiled girls, she said, glaring at us like she was scolding a kitten. Naughty pussy. "

Oppressive pictures

A misogyne, totalitarian and post-apocalyptic society: little of it is made up. By her own admission, Margaret Atwood wanted to write speculative fiction rather than science fiction with "Der Maid's Report". She wanted to tell of ideas and actions that had existed at some point in history. This is another reason why the images in this novel are as oppressive as they are familiar. From a literary point of view, "The Maid's Report" is a slowly told, almost celibate novel. The narrator's voice belongs to Desfred, she is educated, but her imagination threatens to freeze. It lives in a standstill because it has no function other than to conceive and give birth. Desfred is not a heroine, more of a follower. When Desfred has to get into a car at the end of the novel, it remains to be seen whether the Resistance or the State Security have them in their clutches.

"The car is waiting in the driveway, its double doors are open. The two, now one on each side, hold my elbows to help me out. Whether this is my end or my beginning - I cannot say."

The double atwood

In a satirical postscript, Atwood confided to its readers that Gilead subsequently went under. Representative of the Gildead studies, this is a branch of anthropology of the 22nd

Century, meet for their 12th annual congress. They assess the authenticity of the present writing, which could only be reconstructed by transcribing preserved tapes.

In this piece of metafiction, Atwood puts the truth of her novel into perspective. It is because of the lack of clarity between the narrator and the narrated, between the publisher, authorship and tradition. This is a narrative technique preferred by Atwood. In numerous literary theoretical essays, she has dealt with the dual authority of author and narrator, also with how illusion arises and how fictional creation emancipates itself from the author's ego. All writers are incarnations of the romantic doppelganger, writes Atwood in her collection of essays "Negotiating with the Dead" from 2003, which unfortunately has not been translated into German:

"All authors are doubles for the simple reason that it is impossible to meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has passed between its writing and its publication and the person who wrote this book When writers talk about their double selves, they will most likely say that one half cares about life and the other half cares about writing one half has a parasitic relationship to the other. Just like Peter Schlemihl, who sells his shadow to the devil. "

So one can assume that Margaret Atwood had a thieving pleasure in picking up her pen again. For more than three decades, a growing fan base has been able to guess what happened to Desfred after Cliffhanger, and the TV version also provides information.

A monument during his lifetime

So now comes the end as it really happened! The hype about Atwood's sequel, fueled by a whole market machine, seems downright clumsy in view of this authorial shrewdness. So let's turn to the first page of "The Witnesses" and prepare for something that should be atwoodian in a broader sense, something that comes up to us twice, twice, Janus-headed or dodgy.

Here are the first lines:

"Only the dead are allowed to have monuments, but I received one during my lifetime. I am already petrified. This monument is a small token of recognition for my numerous services, it said in the appreciation presented by Aunt Vidala. Our authorities had I thanked her with all the modesty I could muster, then pulled on the rope, undoing the fabric curtain that covered me; it sank to the floor, billowing, and there I stood by We in House Ardua are not cheered, but here and there there was discreet applause. I inclined my head to nod. "

It is of course not Desfred who is looking at a stone double here. It is Lydia, of all people, that draconian educator who likes to find sweet words for everyone, but who also has no problem with torturing her maids when it comes to making them docile. Lydia has achieved great fame over the past 15 years with her picture hanging in every facility in Gilead State. Lydia, fully titled Aunt Lydia, heads an institution called Haus Ardua. Other aunts are under their supervision, and young girls are prepared here for their service as maidservants or wives.

Stabilizing factors in totalitarian systems

Margaret Atwood plays here with the association space of the institution for higher daughters, the governance, with the monastery, the barracks and yes, also with the kapo system of the concentration camps. How exactly she recorded the stabilizing factors of totalitarian systems is again proven by her postscript in the "Maid's Report". This is a professor named James Darcy Pieixoto speaking. In his lecture he refers to the most powerful man in the state, Commander Judd.

"In this context, perhaps a few remarks are in order about the first-class female control institution of the so-called aunts. Judd, according to Limpkin's material, believed from the outset that the best and cheapest way of controlling women for reproductive and other purposes In fact, no empire built by force or otherwise has ever done without this quirk: the control of the locals by members of their own group. / In the case of Gilead, there were many Women willing to serve as aunts, either because they really believed in what they called 'traditional values' or because of the benefits they could gain from it. "

Aunt Lydia is one such pillar of the system. And she was the big antagonist from the "Maid's Report". Entrusting her with one of three narrative voices proves to be extremely resourceful. This serves Atwood's deep interest in the motif of the doppelganger, Lydia looks like a dark twin of the author. And it allows her to move from the victim to the perpetrator perspective. We readers understand, first book, how power affects the powerless. And we understand, second book, how an absolute, total power is established. Aunt Lydia sums it up briefly:

"Knowledge is power, above all discrediting knowledge. I am not the first to recognize it or to capitalize on it to the best of my ability: every secret service in the world has always known it."

Strong nerves help with reading

At the time of the coup that established the new regime, this woman, now called Lydia, was in her middle years. She grew up in the trailer park and studied law on a scholarship. She was a family judge specializing in violence against women. Single, childless, educated, inflexible and intelligent. The later most powerful man in the state, Commander Judd, has personally made it his mission to break this woman.

How exactly he goes to work is not explained here. It takes a bit of nerve to read Margaret Atwood. A decade and a half later, Aunt Lydia is writing her memoir. She hides her loose sheets of paper in the Ardua House library. As a container she chooses a key text from the Victorian era, this is just one of many references to the 19th century. Apologia pro Vita Sua is the name of a writing with which the Anglican Cardinal John Henry Newman justified his conversion to Catholicism in 1864. This pamphlet for a lifetime now serves as a placeholder for an apology that was never uttered.

"How will I end? Will I reach a slightly neglected old age and gradually become calcified? Will I become my own monument? Or will the regime be overthrown with me and with it my stone replica? Will I be cut to pieces by an angry mob." torn, is my head impaled and carried through the streets for amusement? I would have aroused enough anger for it. But I still have a word to say. Not whether I have to die, just when and how. Isn't that also a form of freedom? Oh yes, and who should perish with me. I've already made a list. "

The days of reckoning have come. One wave of purges chases Gilead, and the regime's mendacity and corruption have reached a boiling point. The regime's secret knowledge is stored in the Ardua house. Because the aunts were allowed to read and write, and they kept files. Therefore, Aunt Lydia knows who and where Desfred's two biological daughters are. One is called Nicole and is sixteen years old, the other is called Agnes and is in her early twenties. Lydia ensures that, firstly, they owe her thanks, secondly, that they find each other, and, thirdly, that they flee to Canada together, with explosive material that will bring the regime down.

"My last conversation was with Aunt Lydia. I was nervous about the other aunts, but when I stood in front of Aunt Lydia's office I was very scared. What if she had reconsidered the matter? She had a reputation, didn't only scary, but also unpredictable. "

A page turner with elements of the spy novel

So the story is told with three voices. The girls Agnes and Nicole are the eponymous witnesses who are introduced with the numbering 369 A and 369 B. To whom they bear testimony is not entirely clear, and even the 13th Congress of Gilead Studies can only help to a limited extent. A literary puzzle picture emerges, which offers the reader the pleasure of finding and recognizing. The story is told at great speed, and that is absolutely remarkable in view of the provocative slowness of the novel "The Maid's Reports". This time Margaret Atwood presents a page turner who consciously works with elements of the spy novel. Here the two sisters reach the saving shore:

"Next to me sat my sister Agnes in jeans and a T-shirt that said Run for our lives - Liver Cancer Aid charity run. I thought that was funny, because that's exactly what we had done: We ran for our lives. She held me to the Hand. "You are on all the news," said Ada. "Sisters are fighting for freedom."

'And the bundle,' said Elijah. 'That was on the news too. High explosive. So many crimes among Gilead bigwigs. Soon their heads are rolling. Our mole did a great job. '"

In the Olympus of great dystopias

Of course, this new novel by Margaret Atwood can be weighed and found to be too easy. It can be said that it doesn't work without its predecessor. The delicacy of Desfred's words, in contrast to the brutality of the regime, gave a special tension that was hidden in the narrative. This time the drift into the field of popular storytelling also pulls language with it. In addition, not all of the three narrative parts are equally vivid, the two girls fall away from Aunt Lydia overall.

All of that is correct. However, it should be noted that Margaret Atwood moves in the genre of the great dystopias of the 20th century. In their essence, these are novels of ideas, and it is precisely here that Atwood demonstrates a literary plasticity that has never been achieved before. In future, the "Maid's Report" and "The Witnesses" will be named in the same breath as George Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Beautiful New World". Margaret Atwood is and remains the Magistra Ludi, who does not let go of the threads of her world. And so we think we can hear the dark giggles that rise from Aunt Lydia's throat as the heavy men's boots rumble up her stairs. It could also be Margaret Atwood who laughs the last and longest here. Her dark, her Atwoodian laugh.

Margaret Atwood: "The Witnesses"
From the Canadian English by Monika Baark
Berlin Verlag, 572 pages, 25 euros.