Fresh Franz Kafka Prize recipient Margaret Atwood discusses the threat to women’s rights, Trump’s America – and “poor” Gregor Samsa.
The internationally renowned writer Margaret Atwood has been in Prague this week to receive the Franz Kafka Prize. Atwood is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest in her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a world where women have become chattels and seems to have acquired fresh relevance in Trump’s America. I discussed the current US political landscape with Margaret Atwood. But I first asked her how Franz Kafka’s work had impacted her as a reader.
“I read him as a teenager, and I think that everything you read as a teenager has a special impact on you.
“I was also reading at that time late 19th century horror literature like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula and immediate post-war absurdist comedies like Beckett and Ionesco.
“And Kafka is really a sort of bridge. He was doing a number of things that you might find in a horror story, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Dracula; Dracula transforms into a bat.
“But he was doing it in a much more absurdist, Beckettesque way. I’m sure that Kafka must have had some influence on Beckett, for instance.
“Instead of transforming into a bat, poor old Gregor [Samsa, from Kafka’s Metamorphosis] transforms into an arthropod, which is quite a different thing [laughs].
“So, yes, I read him at just the right time, when all of this can be pretty gripping.”
Your novel The Handmaid’s Tale was written in the 1980s but now it’s back in the centre of attention with the huge TV series and a surge in sales. Why do you think that now has proven a kind of ripe time for this resurgence of interest?
“Because some of the people who are talking about doing these roll-backs of women’s rights in the 1980s, when I was writing the book, now have the power to do it.
“And they’re doing it.”
“OK, the level of misogyny. Well, it’s right out of the 17th century and it’s right out of the Salem witch trials.
“So that has always been there. And I have to say that the United States is not alone.
“Whenever a group that has been kept down tries to better its conditions, those who have been keeping it down see that as a threat and they pile on the hatred.
“They did the same thing to Obama, not because he was a woman but because he was black.
“So if you have the view that only one group deserves to have power, anybody else, from any other kind of group, is going to be attacked, by those people.”
Do you ever despair when you see the state of the Western world, with such mixed results on women’s rights, the environment and so many other issues?
“It’s been worse [laughs].
“Why do we have women’s rights, why did people even start talking about it?
“It’s because things had go so dire in the middle of the 19th century, the needle had swung too far, and people started thinking, This is absurd.
“So then the needle starts swinging the other way and typically in human history it sometimes goes the other way – the French Revolution: heads roll – before you achieve an equilibrium.
“But where you always want to be in terms of living some sort of individual life that is satisfying to you, where you probably want to be is right about in the middle.”
So are you optimistic of a future post-Trump swing the other way?
“But there’s a huge amount of in-fighting going on, and if you go behind the scenes and lift the curtain, it’s one group of very rich people against another group of very rich people, conducting proxy wars through people like Steve Bannon and Vice-President Pence.
“I’d say those are the two opposing factions. And what you want is neither of them [laughs].
“But they’re fighting each other right now, in a kind of Bolshevik-Menshevik kind of way.
“So on the one hand you’ve got the religious extremists, who hate gays and all that kind of thing.
“And on the other hand you’ve got an extreme, what might at first appear to be libertarian side but is in fact not interested in liberty for anybody but a certain group, as usual…”
Sorry, it’s not clear to me – are you optimistic for the future or not?
“Well, of course, all writers are optimistic. or they wouldn’t bother writing.
“If you think that the human race is doomed and nobody’s going to read your stuff, you don’t bother.
“So, optimist, what does that mean? Sally Sunshine, everything’s going to be wonderful? No.
“Will the human race avoid destroying itself by acidifying the ocean so much that it ceases to make oxygen? Let’s hope not [laughs].
“How bad can it get? That’s how bad it can get, so I’m hoping we’ll avoid that.
“Though if I were a plant I wouldn’t be too worried about any of this.”