Assume, for just one moment, that you already know Margaret Atwood belongs to a family of scientists, that she tweets, that she reads Wired magazine for pleasure and wraps her novels around themes of science-and-technology-catalysed apocalypses. Then you won’t have a choice but to read her newest novel, The Year of the Flood, as the latest in her ongoing chronicles of Armageddon caused by extremes of politics or biotechnology, to mention two examples.
Here, too, planet-wide destruction comes in the form of a flood—the symbol of destruction in every myth—which, in this case, is without water. It’s an unknown, presumably genetically engineered, disease that kills all but two women, Toby and Ren, both of whom were luckily in locations that offered immunity. Their backstories leading up to the flood, and their annals of survival make up the novel, with the mandatory hopeful final sentence.
Author speak: Margaret Atwood. John MacDougall/AFP
Strewn as this novel is with many signs, artefacts, social mores and clever references, it’s possible—even tempting—to interpret it as a literary warning against accelerating climate change and environmental degradation. It’s almost deliciously self-righteous and artistic at the same time. Except that, part of the way in, you start wondering whether Atwood, now 70, is being serious or playful.
Is it possible that, in her depiction of the cult of the Gardeners—encountered in earlier books of hers too—she’s actually laughing at their childish belief in ascending an organic stairway to heaven? Their hymns are banal. Their personalities range from vapid to sly, without any depth. Their behaviour is a parody even of the rituals of fringe groups.
But something is rotten in this reading, and it isn’t just the over-ripe fruits and vegetables. For if Atwood were to be poking fun at those who forecast the death of the planet through environmental stupidity, wouldn’t that destroy her own case too? Unfortunately, whether by design or not, this element does rob the narrative of some of its credibility.
The Year of the Flood appears to be believable only when it explores the emotional landscapes of the two women narrators, the relationships they form, the wisdom they acquire, the strategies they adopt. And therein lies a clue to just how this novel might be best read: as their story.
Forget, therefore, the science fiction which Atwood prefers to label speculative fiction because, she says, the events she depicts are in the realm of possibility; indeed, some of them may have happened already. There’s no scientific or technological premise here without which the story would fall—as should be the case with kosher sci-fi.
Forget, too, the commentary on extreme societies of the nature of 1984 or Brave New World or A Clockwork Orange. All those books depicted dystopias far more chillingly than Atwood does. Looking at the novel through any of those lenses leaves you cold, not caring who survives, who wins, who lives to see another sunrise. Despite the wordplay, in the best Orwellian tradition, throwing up a CorpSeCorps, a HelthWyzer, a SecretBurger, it’s no fun as a 1984-wannabe.
The Year of the Flood: Bloomsbury,434 pages, Rs999.
So, let the apocalypse remain in the background. Don’t let artefacts such as the liobam, lion meets lamb—which can dismember people while looking at them with gentle eyes—suck you back into the foibles of genetic manipulation. Read The Year of the Flood instead as the story of two women battling enormous odds, losing people they care for, and the resultant kinship between them. Then, suddenly, things fall into place.
Arunava Sinha is a Delhi-based writer and translator who has translated The Middleman by Sankar from Bengali.
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