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The Blind Assassin

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The Blind Assassin Cover

ISBN13: 9780385720953
ISBN10: 0385720955
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

The Blind Assassin: The hard-boiled egg

What will it be, then? he says. Dinner jackets and romance, or shipwrecks on a barren coast? You can have your pick: jungles, tropical islands, mountains. Or another dimension of space--that's what I'm best at.

Another dimension of space? Oh really!

Don't scoff, it's a useful address. Anything you like can happen there. Spaceships and skin-tight uniforms, ray guns, Martians with the bodies of giant squids, that sort of thing.

You choose, she says. You're the professional. How about a desert? I've always wanted to visit one. With an oasis, of course. Some date palms might be nice. She's tearing the crust off her sandwich. She doesn't like the crusts.

Not much scope, with deserts. Not many features, unless you add some tombs. Then you could have a pack of nude women who've been dead for three thousand years, with lithe, curvaceous figures, ruby-red lips, azure hair in a foam of tumbled curls, and eyes like snake-filled pits. But I don't think I could fob those off on you. Lurid isn't your style.

You never know. I might like them.

I doubt it. They're for the huddled masses. Popular on the covers though--they'll writhe all over a fellow, they have to be beaten off with rifle butts.

Could I have another dimension of space, and also the tombs and the dead women, please?

That's a tall order, but I'll see what I can do. I could throw in some sacrificial virgins as well, with metal breastplates and silver ankle chains and diaphanous vestments. And a pack of ravening wolves, extra.

I can see you'll stop at nothing.

You want the dinner jackets instead? Cruise ships, white linen, wrist-kissing and hypocritical slop?

No. All right. Do what you think is best.

Cigarette?

She shakes her head for no. He lights his own, striking the match on his thumbnail.

You'll set fire to yourself, she says.

I never have yet.

She looks at his rolled-up shirt sleeve, white or a pale blue, then his wrist, the browner skin of his hand. He throws out radiance, it must be reflected sun. Why isn't everyone staring? Still, he's too noticeable to be out here--out in the open. There are other people around, sitting on the grass or lying on it, propped on one elbow--other picnickers, in their pale summer clothing. It's all very proper. Nevertheless she feels that the two of them are alone; as if the apple tree they're sitting under is not a tree but a tent; as if there's a line drawn around them with chalk. Inside this line, they're invisible.

Space it is, then, he says. With tombs and virgins and wolves--but on the instalment plan. Agreed?

The instalment plan?

You know, like furniture.

She laughs.

No, I'm serious. You can't skimp, it might take days. We'll have to meet again.

She hesitates. All right, she says. If I can. If I can arrange it.

Good, he says. Now I have to think. He keeps his voice casual. Too much urgency might put her off.

On the Planet of--let's see. Not Saturn, it's too close. On the Planet Zycron, located in another dimension of space, there's a rubble-strewn plain. To the north is the ocean, which is violet in colour. To the west is a range of mountains, said to be roamed after sunset by the voracious undead female inhabitants of the crumbling tombs located there. You see, I've put the tombs in right off the bat.

That's very conscientious of you, she says.

I stick to my bargains. To the south is a burning waste of sand, and to the east are several steep valleys that might once have been rivers.

I suppose there are canals, like Mars?

Oh, canals, and all sorts of things. Abundant traces of an ancient and once highly developed civilization, though this region is now only sparsely inhabited by roaming bands of primitive nomads. In the middle of the plain is a large mound of stones. The land around is arid, with a few scrubby bushes. Not exactly a desert, but close enough. Is there a cheese sandwich left?

She rummages in the paper bag. No, she says, but there's a hard-boiled egg. She's never been this happy before. Everything is fresh again, still to be enacted.

Just what the doctor ordered, he says. A bottle of lemonade, a hard-boiled egg, and Thou. He rolls the egg between his palms, cracking the shell, then peeling it away. She watches his mouth, the jaw, the teeth.

Beside me singing in the public park, she says. Here's the salt for it.

Thanks. You remembered everything.

This arid plain isn't claimed by anyone, he continues. Or rather it's claimed by five different tribes, none strong enough to annihilate the others. All of them wander past this stone heap from time to time, herding their thulks--blue sheep-like creatures with vicious tempers--or transporting merchandise of little value on their pack animals, a sort of three-eyed camel.

The pile of stones is called, in their various languages, The Haunt of Flying Snakes, The Heap of Rubble, The Abode of Howling Mothers, The Door of Oblivion, and The Pit of Gnawed Bones. Each tribe tells a similar story about it. Underneath the rocks, they say, a king is buried--a king without a name. Not only the king, but the remains of the magnificent city this king once ruled. The city was destroyed in a battle, and the king was captured and hanged from a date palm as a sign of triumph. At moonrise he was cut down and buried, and the stones were piled up to mark the spot. As for the other inhabitants of the city, they were all killed. Butchered--men, women, children, babies, even the animals. Put to the sword, hacked to pieces. No living thing was spared.

That's horrible.

Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light. Good for the trade, we thrive on bones; without them there'd be no stories. Any more lemonade?

No, she says. We've drunk it all up. Go on.

The real name of the city was erased from memory by the conquerors, and this is why--say the taletellers--the place is now known only by the name of its own destruction. The pile of stones thus marks both an act of deliberate remembrance, and an act of deliberate forgetting. They're fond of paradox in that region. Each of the five tribes claims to have been the victorious attacker. Each recalls the slaughter with relish. Each believes it was ordained by their own god as righteous vengeance, because of the unholy practices carried on in the city. Evil must be cleansed with blood, they say. On that day the blood ran like water, so afterwards it must have been very clean.

Every herdsman or merchant who passes adds a stone to the heap. It's an old custom--you do it in remembrance of the dead, your own dead--but since no one knows who the dead under the pile of stones really were, they all leave their stones on the off chance. They'll get around it by telling you that what happened there must have been the will of their god, and thus by leaving a stone they are honouring this will.

There's also a story that claims the city wasn't really destroyed at all. Instead, through a charm known only to the King, the city and its inhabitants were whisked away and replaced by phantoms of themselves, and it was only these phantoms that were burnt and slaughtered. The real city was shrunk very small and placed in a cave beneath the great heap of stones. Everything that was once there is there still, including the palaces and the gardens filled with trees and flowers; including the people, no bigger than ants, but going about their lives as before--wearing their tiny clothes, giving their tiny banquets, telling their tiny stories, singing their tiny songs.

The King knows what's happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don't know. They don't know they've become so small. They don't know they're supposed to be dead. They don't even know they've been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it's the sun.

The leaves of the apple tree rustle. She looks up at the sky, then at her watch. I'm cold, she says. I'm also late. Could you dispose of the evidence? She gathers eggshells, twists up wax paper.

No hurry, surely? It's not cold here.

There's a breeze coming through from the water, she says. The wind must have changed. She leans forward, moving to stand up.

Don't go yet, he says, too quickly.

I have to. They'll be looking for me. If I'm overdue, they'll want to know where I've been.

She smoothes her skirt down, wraps her arms around herself, turns away, the small green apples watching her like eyes.

The Globe and Mail, June 4, 1947

GRIFFEN FOUND IN SAILBOAT

special to the globe and mail

After an unexplained absence of several days, the body of industrialist Richard E. Griffen, forty-seven, said to have been favoured for the Progressive Conservative candidacy in the Toronto riding of St. David's, was discovered near his summer residence of "Avilion" in Port Ticonderoga, where he was vacationing. Mr. Griffen was found in his sailboat, the Water Nixie, which was tied up at his private jetty on the Jogues River. He had apparently suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Police report that no foul play is suspected.

Mr. Griffen had a distinguished career as the head of a commercial empire that embraced many areas including textiles, garments and light manufacturing, and was commended for his efforts in supplying Allied troops with uniform parts and weapons components during the war. He was a frequent guest at the influential gatherings held at the Pugwash home of industrialist Cyrus Eaton and a leading figure of both the Empire Club and the Granite Club. He was a keen golfer and a well-known figure at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. The Prime Minister, reached by telephone at his private estate of "Kingsmere," commented, "Mr. Griffen was one of this country's most able men. His loss will be deeply felt."

Mr. Griffen was the brother-in-law of the late Laura Chase, who made her posthumous debut as a novelist this spring, and is survived by his sister Mrs. Winifred (Griffen) Prior, the noted socialite, and by his wife, Mrs. Iris (Chase) Griffen, as well as by his ten-year-old daughter Aimee. The funeral will be held in Toronto at the Church of St. Simon the Apostle on Wednesday.

The Blind Assassin: The park bench

Why were there people, on Zycron? I mean human beings like us. If it's another dimension of space, shouldn't the inhabitants have been talking lizards or something?

Only in the pulps, he says. That's all made up. In reality it was like this: Earth was colonized by the Zycronites, who developed the ability to travel from one space dimension to another at a period several millennia after the epoch of which we speak. They arrived here eight thousand years ago. They brought a lot of plant seeds with them, which is why we have apples and oranges, not to mention bananas--one look at a banana and you can tell it came from outer space. They also brought animals--horses and dogs and goats and so on. They were the builders of Atlantis. Then they blew themselves up through being too clever. We're descended from the stragglers.

Oh, she says. So that explains it. How very convenient for you.

It'll do in a pinch. As for the other peculiarities of Zycron, it has seven seas, five moons, and three suns, of varying strengths and colours.

What colours? Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry?

You aren't taking me seriously.

I'm sorry. She tilts her head towards him. Now I'm listening. See?

He says: Before its destruction, the city--let's call it by its former name, Sakiel-Norn, roughly translatable as The Pearl of Destiny--was said to have been the wonder of the world. Even those who claim their ancestors obliterated it take great pleasure in describing its beauty. Natural springs had been made to flow through the carved fountains in the tiled courtyards and gardens of its numerous palaces. Flowers abounded, and the air was filled with singing birds. There were lush plains nearby where herds of fat gnarr grazed, and orchards and groves and forests of tall trees that had not yet been cut down by merchants or burned by spiteful enemies. The dry ravines were rivers then; canals leading from them irrigated the fields around the city, and the soil was so rich the heads of grain were said to have measured three inches across.

The aristocrats of Sakiel-Norn were called the Snilfards. They were skilled metalworkers and inventors of ingenious mechanical devices, the secrets of which they carefully guarded. By this period they had invented the clock, the crossbow, and the hand pump, though they had not yet got so far as the internal combustion engine and still used animals for transport.

The male Snilfards wore masks of woven platinum, which moved as the skin of their faces moved, but which served to hide their true emotions. The women veiled their faces in a silk-like cloth made from the cocoon of the chaz moth. It was punishable by death to cover your face if you were not a Snilfard, since imperviousness and subterfuge were reserved for the nobility. The Snilfards dressed luxuriously and were connoisseurs of music, and played on various instruments to display their taste and skill. They indulged in court intrigues, held magnificent feasts, and fell elaborately in love with one another's wives. Duels were fought over these affairs, though it was more acceptable in a husband to pretend not to know.

The smallholders, serfs, and slaves were called the Ygnirods. They wore shabby grey tunics with one shoulder bare, and one breast as well for the women, who were--needless to say--fair game for the Snilfard men. The Ygnirods were resentful of their lot in life, but concealed this with a pretense of stupidity. Once in a while they would stage a revolt, which would then be ruthlessly suppressed. The lowest among them were slaves, who could be bought and traded and also killed at will. They were prohibited by law from reading, but had secret codes that they scratched in the dirt with stones. The Snilfards harnessed them to ploughs.

If a Snilfard should become bankrupt, he might be demoted to an Ygnirod. Or he might avoid such a fate by selling his wife or children in order to redeem his debt. It was much rarer for an Ygnirod to achieve the status of Snilfard, since the way up is usually more arduous than the way down: even if he were able to amass the necessary cash and acquire a Snilfard bride for himself or his son, a certain amount of bribery was involved, and it might be some time before he was accepted by Snilfard society.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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gentanishku, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by gentanishku)
Love this book!
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Nikki Dodd, January 4, 2010 (view all comments by Nikki Dodd)
I not only had one of those rare 'I don't want this to end' kind of experiences when reading this book, but it also introduced and caused me to fall in love with Margaret Atwood. She is one of those authors that are important to actually understanding what literature really is. The Blind Assassin is my favorite, but I have never read a book by Atwood that I didn't actually love.
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(3 of 6 readers found this comment helpful)
cariola119, November 29, 2009 (view all comments by cariola119)
I could have done without the sci fi story embedded in the novel (yes, I know it relates to the main story, but I just found it really annoying). Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading about the troubled, intertwined lives of sisters Laura and Iris. Atwood did a fine job of recreating the world of a small Canadian town in the Depression and World War II eras, especially that of the narrator, Iris Chase Griffin, who marries a wealthy older man in order to provide for her sister and finds herself controlled by her ambitious, high society husband and his snooty sister. Secrets and lies--family dysfunction at its finest!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780385720953
Author:
Atwood, Margaret
Publisher:
Anchor Books
Author:
Atwood, Margaret
Location:
New York
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Death
Subject:
Sisters
Subject:
Widows
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
Psychological fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st. pbk. ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
135
Publication Date:
August 2001
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
544
Dimensions:
8.00x5.28x.90 in. .85 lbs.

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The Blind Assassin Used Trade Paper
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Product details 544 pages Anchor Books/Doubleday - English 9780385720953 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "As she adroitly juggles three plot lines, Atwood's inventiveness achieves a tensile energy. The alternating stories never slacken the pace; on the contrary, one reads each section breathlessly, eager to get back to the other. In sheer storytelling bravado, Atwood here surpasses even The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace." Publishers Weekly
"Review" by , "The Blind Assassin has enough mysteries to keep even a casual reader engaged, and with respect to solutions, it is less scrupulously committed to ambiguity than Ms. Atwood's 1997 novel, Alias Grace. As with all of Ms. Atwood's recent fiction, The Blind Assassin, despite what sounds like a romantic plot, has been scoured free of any trace of sentimentality. There is a steely quality to Ms. Atwood's writing that's a bit scary but also exhilarating; no one gets away with anything, especially not her female narrators — and they know better than to try."
"Review" by , “An example of a writer at the very peak of her performance.…As it delves into the kinds of relationships that can exist between men and women and the rich and poor, it becomes a compassionate and utterly honest book. It is profound and touching. It is to be treasured.”
"Review" by , “Atwood is a dazzling storyteller with a distinctive voice and an ear attuned to irony.”
"Review" by , "Atwood does not mess around in her riveting new tale: by the end of the first sentence, we know that the narrator's sister is dead, and after just 18 pages we learn that the narrator's husband died on a boat, that her daughter died in a fall, and that her dead husband's sister raised her granddaughter....Atwood brilliantly overlays a second story, an sf novel-within-a-novel, credited to Laura Chasen, that features nameless lovers trysting in squalor. Some readers may figure out Atwood's wrap-up before book's end. Worry not — nothing will dampen the pleasure of getting there. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest writers alive...Her new work is so assured, so elegant and so incandescently intelligent, she casts her contemporaries in the shade."
"Review" by , The Blind Assassin is the kind of story so full of intrigue and desperation that you take it to bed with you simply because you can’t bear to put it down.…It’s one thing to write an accomplished novel; it’s another entirely to spin a tale so brilliantly that the reader internalizes it.”
"Review" by , "The first great novel of the new millennium."
"Review" by , "Absorbing...expertly rendered...Virtuosic storytelling [is] on display."
"Review" by , "Brilliant...Opulent...Atwood is a poet....as well as a contriver of fiction, and scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous."
"Review" by , "Chilling...Lyrical...[Atwood's] most ambitious work to date."
"Review" by , "Grand storytelling on a grand scale...Sheerly enjoyable."
"Review" by , "Bewitching...A killer novel....Atwood's crisp wit and steely realism are reminiscent of Edith Wharton...A wonderfully complex narrative. "
"Review" by , "A tour de force."
"Synopsis" by , The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.
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