Margaret Atwood has been awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, one of Germany’s most prestigious cultural prizes, at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Every country, like every person, has a noble self – the self it would like to believe it is – and an everyday self – the good-enough self that gets it through the mundane weeks and months when everything is going on as expected – and then a hidden self, much less virtuous, that may burst out at moments of threat and rage, and do unspeakable things.
But what causes these times of threat and rage – or what is causing them now? You will have heard many theories about that, and you will doubtless hear many more. It is climate change, some will say: floods, droughts, fires, and hurricanes affect growing conditions, and then there are food shortages, and then there is social unrest, and then there are wars, and then there are refugees, and then there is the fear of refugees, because will there be enough to share?
It is financial imbalance, others will say: too few rich people control too much of the world’s wealth, and they are sitting on it like dragons, and causing large financial disparities and resentments, and then there will be social unrest, and wars, or revolutions, and so forth. No, say others: it is the modern world: it is automation and robots, it is technology, it is the Internet, it is the manipulation of news and opinion that is being done by an opportunistic few for their own advantage: the army of Internet trolls and astroturfers, for instance, who took such pains to influence the German election, and, it seems, the similar Russian efforts in the United States via Facebook. But why are we surprised? The Internet is a human tool, like all others: axes, guns, trains, bicycles, cars, telephones, radios, films, you name it – and like every human tool it has a good side, a bad side, and a stupid side that produces effects that were at first not anticipated.
Among those tools is possibly the very first uniquely human tool: our narrative capability, enabled by complex grammar. What an advantage stories must once have given us – allowing us to pass along essential knowledge so you didn’t have to find our everything for yourself by trial and error. Wolves communicate, but they do not tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
Stories, too, can have a good side, and bad side, and a third side that produces unanticipated effects. As a writer of stories I am supposed to say how necessary they are, how they help us understand one another, how they build empathy, and so forth – and that is true. But because I am a writer of stories, I am also aware of their ambiguities and dangers. Let us just say that stories are powerful. They can change the way people think and feel – for better or for worse.
So what is the story we are telling ourselves about this present moment and its tribulations? Whatever the cause of the change we are living through, it is the kind of moment when the rabbits in the meadow perk up their ears, because a predator has entered the scene.
Along will come a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or even a wolf in wolf’s clothing, and that wolf will say: Rabbits, you need a strong leader, and I am just the one for the job. I will cause the perfect future world to appear as if by magic, and ice cream will grow on trees. But first we will have to get rid of civil society – it is too soft, it is degenerate –– and we will have to abandon the accepted norms of behaviour that allow us to walk down the street without sticking knives into each other all the time. And then we will have to get rid of Those people. Only then will the perfect society appear!
Those people vary from place to place and from time to time. Maybe they are witches, or lepers, both of whom were blamed for the Black Death. Maybe they are Huguenots, in eighteenth century France. Maybe they are Mennonites. (But why Mennonites? I asked a Mennonite friend. You seem so harmless! We were pacifists, he answered. In a continent at war, we set a bad example.)
Anyway, the wolf says: Do as I say and all will be well. Defy me, and snarl snarl, gobble gobble, you will be crunched into tiny bits.
The rabbits freeze, because they are confused and terrified, and by the time they figure out that the wolf does not in fact mean them well but has arranged everything only for the benefit of the wolves, it is too late.
Yes, we know, you will say. We’ve read the folktales. We’ve read the science fictions. We’ve been warned, often. But that, somehow, does not always stop this tale from being enacted in human societies, many times over….
The official site of the award also has an English translation of the introductory remarks by Heinrich Riethmüller, head of the German Booksellers’ Association.
Several weeks ago, when we visited Margret Atwood in Canada to discuss today’s ceremony, we very quickly came to the topic of the extraordinary political developments in the USA. At that point, she said with a sigh, “I’m probably the only person in the world profiting from Donald Trump”. Of course, she was referring to the surprising and sudden success of a novel she had written several decades ago, one that was undergoing not only a renaissance but also a frighteningly renewed relevance in many countries. Indeed, many readers are drawn to the visions Atwood sets forth; they discover parallels to our own social order and uncover similarities in today’s power structures and power holders.
The fact that people continue to turn to literature for guidance – especially when seeking answers to urgent questions in an age of insecurity, danger and fear about the future – is a truly amazing phenomenon. When we sense that our world is losing its equilibrium, that is, when we feel our trusted environment is being threatened, we reach out to books in hopes of confirmation, consolation and new insight. Books are escape vessels, buoys we hold onto in times of uncertainty. They help us reflect upon where we stand. They synthesise and store the knowledge and experience of thinkers and poets who portray the world as it is or might soon become, often in the hopes of bringing about some sort of change in their readers….
A laudatory speech was given by Austrian writer Eva Menasse, whose older brother Robert just won the German Book Award.
What a joy and an honour it is to deliver a speech in praise of Margaret Atwood! She has long been a role model and a source of motivation for me, first and foremost thanks to her literary oeuvre. This makes it all the more painful to have so little time today, since I cannot possibly do justice to her body of work in the few minutes I have. Indeed, I would much prefer to give several hour-long lectures about the knife-thrower’s precision with which she sketches her characters and renders them utterly unforgettable in the space of only three or four sentences. I would much prefer to delve deeply into the dramaturgical genius with which she sashays from one temporal level to the next, especially in her short stories. And, of course, I would much prefer to spend hours elucidating her famous x-ray vision – that unique perceptive faculty that compels her to leave no stone unturned amongst the wealth of human subterfuge and ignominy, only then to provide us with some comfort via her trademark mischievous humour.
Equally as worthy of praise and admiration is Margaret Atwood’s political voice. This voice speaks directly out of her literature, but it can also be heard time and again outside of her fiction, that is, in pointed interviews and, most recently, in Payback, her intelligent and entertaining piece on the subject of financial debt. In this book, she shows how economic missteps have often enough precipitated a hero’s downfall in works of literature, too. Indeed, she proves that this fall is not always brought about by moral failings alone. And yet, somehow, we neglect the fact that Madame Bovary – to name just one example – was not only deep in despair, but also deeply in debt. Who knows what might have happened to her otherwise? Might she have survived? No doubt as a heavily damaged soul, but still. In novels, we tend to overlook these things – the complicated and poisoned relationship between creditor and debtor, the whole budgetary disaster of it all, etc. – preferring to focus our attention on the emotional drama taking place. This is precisely what Margaret Atwood – an almost frighteningly well-read writer – examined with Cassandra-like prophecy in this outstanding series of non-fiction essays written in the summer of 2008, that is, only months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers sparked the global financial crisis….
[Thanks to Cora Buhlert for the story.]