The Testaments

First of all, I have not read any prior work by Margaret Atwood, I have not watched any movies or TV series adapted from her work either. Personally I do not derive much pleasure from watching the adaptations on the screen; reading the words with my imagination tangoing together with those precious words is almost as delicious as having pistachio mochi. 

A recent interview of Atwood by Ann McElvoy for the Economist brought my attention to Atwood. Her words caught me completely: “If there is a certain way women are supposed to think, then you are in the area of Big Brother watching you. Except in this case, it was Big Sister. So here is a party line, we will stomp on you with our large boots. At which point, I don’t have a job, so fire me!” I decided at that point to read what she had written, naturally starting from her latest book The Testament. I firmly believe in knowing one’s own mind, having independent thoughts and opinions, particularly as a woman. 

In The Testament, Atwood is a master storyteller. Two facts here: it is not my type of book (because this month anything to do with compression is my type of reading material), and I struggled with putting it down for practical reasons until I finally finished reading it. Contradiction but reality. That is the power of Atwood’s writing. In short, although reluctantly at first, I surrendered at the end. 

Having not read Handmaid’s Tale did not impede the reading of The Testament as much one might think. To the contrary, it stimulated my imagination and gave me the pleasure of co-creation, like practicing the push and pull in TaiChi with the master Atwood. There are three storylines emerging. The fog initially gets thicker and thicker over time, then slowly as the lines start to become more visible and merge gradually, all three stories come together. 

I am to a moderate extent disappointed that Margaret Atwood was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Admittedly, I have not read the works by this year’s Nobel Laureate Peter Handke. The prize was awarded to Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” After practicing TaiChi with Atwood, I had wished the award would go to her. Reading The Testament feels to me to know the writer very intimately in the intellectual level. One (such as myself) might readily admit that is the primary fear of writing. 

In my end is my beginning, as someone once said. Who was that? Mary, Queen of Scots, if history does not lie. Her motto, with a phoenix rising from its ashes, embroidered on a wall hanging.

The flame of my life is subsiding, more slowly than some of those around me might like, but faster than they may realize. I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like. It could be worse, I told myself: my face betrays no signs of weakness. It retains its leathery texture, its character-bestowing mole on the chin, its etching of familiar lines. I was never frivolously pretty, but I was once handsome: that can no longer be said. Imposing is the best that might be ventured.

You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.

My life might have been very different. If only I’d looked around me, taken in the wider view. If only I’d packed up early enough, as some did, and left the country—the country that I still foolishly thought was the same as the country to which I had for so many years belonged. Such regrets are of no practical use. I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.

The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory. But among these bloody fingerprints are those made by ourselves, and these can’t be wiped away so easily. 

“No one wants to die,” said Becka. “But some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.”

We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.

The ability to concoct plausible lies is a talent not to be underestimated.

When a shameful thing is done to you, the shamefulness rubs off on you. You feel dirtied.

She who cannot control herself cannot control the path to duty. Do not fight the waves of anger, use the anger as your fuel. Inhale. Exhale. Sidestep. Circumvent. Deflect.

I’ve had cause to notice over the course of what you might call my Gilead career that underlings given sudden power frequently become the worst abusers of it.

For a time I almost believed what I understood I was supposed to believe. I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous. What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive.

You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself, so face the facts. There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated. You’re a judge, so you are the educated, like it or not. They won’t want you around.

I was already hardening myself for what was almost surely to come. Sorry solves nothing, I told myself. Over the years—the many years—how true I have found that to be.

Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.