Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Margaret Atwood, "Survival – A Thematical Guide To Canadian Literature"

- Anansi Toronto 1972 ISBN 088784-613-0



Read from September 16th to October 2nd 2015

My rating:


I think this is the first time ever I’ve read a book of literary criticism without being familiar with the name of at least some of the writers it was talking about (in fact I know of two of them, Alice Munro and Leonard Cohen, but theses ones are too little discussed to really count).

It was a strange feeling, as when familiar ground becomes suddenly unfamiliar, however, it did not stir any inferiority complex, since I’m fully aware my “Calit” knowledge is very limited. In fact, this is one of the reasons I decided to read it – to guide me through a culture I’ve been curious about since I came here, ten years ago. Another reason is of course, the author – not only I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood but I’ve also been always interested in the iconic writers’ attitude towards the literature of their native country.


The reading was, naturally, beyond expectations – a very original exploration (despite the author’s denial of originality) of a relatively virgin territory – the Canadian literature - and what it has become without a doubt a reference book in this area.

From the very beginning, that is the preface, Margaret Atwood explains why such a study was necessary: to create a real portrait of the Canadian literature, instead of the image the international literature used to promote – of an idyllic Canada as an unspoilt place with happy archaic peasants. The culture of a country, resumes the author, is a map of the mind, revealing who and where its inhabitants are. To know this map is vital in preserving their identity:

For the members of a country or a culture, shared knowledge of their place, their here, is not a luxury but a necessity. Without that knowledge we will not survive.

And survival seems to be the core symbol of the Canadian literature, as it is the island - a live body - for the British literature and the frontier – between the promise and the actuality  - in the American one. The survival is therefore the premise of the essay, with its main four “basic victim positions” the author finds: denial of the victim experience; acceptance of the victim role as an act of Fate (will of God, biology, history, etc.); repudiation of the victim role; and finally dissociation from this role by becoming a creative non-victim. It is the writer, of course, who is always in the fourth position although he can write about every one of the four.

All the themes in Canadian literature, says the author, converge to at least one of these positions. The image of the Nature, for example, is despoiled of all romanticism, with its desolate landscapes, dead, unanswering, hostile, for winter reigns like an unforgiving deity. Its relationship with man is always extreme: either the man is threatened and often killed by it or, when man starts winning against Nature, the sympathy shifts to the defeated giant.

If we try translating the uncomfortable relationship between Nature and Man into the four basic victim positions, they could read as follows: position one: pretending that Nature is the good divine mother (while you’re being eaten by mosquitos); position two: Nature is a huge hostile enemy against whom man acquires the will to lose; position three: the giant man beats up the helpless Nature; position four: nature is nature. And isn’t the fourth position the most reasonable one?

Nature is a monster, perhaps, only if you come to it with unreal expectations or fight its conditions rather than accepting them and learning to live with them. Snow isn’t necessarily something you die in or hate. You can also make houses in it.

Not very different is developed the Animal theme. If British animal-stories disguise British society in stories about social relations, and American ones are hunting and/or quest stories, Canadian animal-stories are failure stories, told from the point of view of the animal, where the animal is always a victim, eventually killed however brave it is.

All the other themes explored by Margaret Atwood follow the same pattern: the Indians are not interpreted from a moral point of view (good or bad guys) but by a social one: their persecution; the Settlers and the Explorers either fail (they find nothing, they cannot settle) or are doomed (they find death or the human life is destroyed after settling); the Family is an oppressive environment but they prefer to huddle together instead of wandering in the cold, empty space; the Immigrant is characterised by lack of expectation, he came here only to escape a bad condition elsewhere; the Woman is a Rapunzel who refuses to acknowledge her imprisonment; the Artist is paralyzed in a country with no literary past to build on.

In these circumstances, what kind of a hero can emerge? A futile one, an unconvincing martyr, since Canadian history, according to Margaret Atwood, is unable to create heroes that change society. Their revolutions are failures because Canadians often do not know which side they are on (they are terrified of undermining the authority, the rebellions never had the popular support).

Over all, Canadian literature’s background is rather dark, however powerful in suggestions, handling universal obsessions in quite an original way. It rests to be read for its complete and glorious survival:

…when I discovered the shape of the national tradition I was depressed, and it’s obvious why: it’s a fairly tough tradition to be saddled with, to have to come to terms with. But I was exhilarated, too: having bleak ground under your feet is better than having no ground at all. Any map is better than no map as it is accurate, and knowing your starting points and your frame of reference is better than being suspended in a void. A tradition doesn’t necessarily exist to bury you: it can also be used as material for new departures.



P.S. I made my own short list from the books Margaret Atwood discussed. Here are some of them: Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush, Farley Mowat, Never Cry Wolf, E.J. Pratt, Brébeuf and His Brethren, Hugh McLennan, Each Man’s Son, Adele Wiseman, The Sacrifice, Don Gutteridge, Riel, Sinclair Ross, As for Me and My House, Marian Engel, The Honeymoon Festival, Margaret Laurence, The Fire Dwellers, Roch Carrier, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute, Bill Bisset, Nobody Owns the Earth

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