Thursday, 13 November 2014

The scandal of an imagined murder

Full title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 242p, hard cover
Publisher: Fourth Estate (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s kind of hard to talk about Hilary Mantel’s latest collection of short fictions, after the rave and the anger created by the title story. Declaring that at one point in life she’d imagined assassinating Margaret Thatcher is, in some minds, almost equivalent to Mantel’s being guilty of the former PM’s death. Although the story I am talking about is straightforwardly fictional, it has managed to bring significant sensitivities to the surface, and thus turn all attention away from the obvious facts of the volume’s narrative significance.
Narratively put, therefore, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” depicts an old killer-meets-narrator situation. It’s about a radicalised sniper of Irish descent who enters the strategically situated apartment of a seemingly incautious woman, where he knows he can get the view for a perfect shoot. He’s determined to pursue his plan. At the same time, though, he is pursued by old habits, patriotic discourses, conventions of political martyrism, which seem, at times, to burden his conscience. One sentence describes him beautifully:
“He carried his own tea in his left hand and his gun in the right.”
The story is also about the inhabitant of the said apartment, a woman who gradually finds within herself the seeds for a similar radicalisation. Under the pressure of similar motivations, she grows steadily fond of the sentiment of wanting to kill the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Her reasons are commonly found, and because of this they are also merciless and acid-like:
“You can’t force pity from a government like hers. Why would she negotiate? Why would you expect it? What’s a dozen Irishmen to them? What’s a hundred? All those people, they’re capital punishers. They pretend to be modern, but leave them to themselves and they’d gouge eyes out in the public square.”
Here, in Mantel’s story, the demonization of Margaret Thatcher is performed to an extent where her becoming a target is no longer a moral problem but a statement of political retaliation.
“I thought there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bust stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.”
The story carries with it this constant moral tone of radicalism, mixed with the sarcasm and rhetoric of good old militant speeches. And that, indeed, makes it an interesting narrative. But “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” is not the only story in the collection. Things can be said about the other fictions too, because they have aspects in common. As is the case with the issues of place and space, for instance.

Hilary Mantel. Source: The Guardian
Un-settled characters roam Hilary Mantel’s stories. They advance into their destinies with a sense that the places they inhabit are too unpleasant to be liked. They seem to cherish the idea of being somewhere else. Some other place, maybe some other story too. The protagonists of “Sorry to Disturb” find it difficult to live in the city of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia (“this crazy city,” as one of them calls it). The narrator in “Harley Street” has the same problem of inadaptation to an urban setting that’s not quite up her alley:
“One day I’ll get further out of town. Somewhere just big enough for me. Somewhere small and quiet.”
Another thing these stories have in common is the theme of memory. Here, memory too (concerned not with space but with time) is a faulty mechanism. Throughout the volume there are plenty of occasions to prove it. In “Terminus,” the narrator struggles to remember a significant event in her relation to her dead father.
“My mind tried to provide occasions to which it could go back, but none occurred. I coveted something sweet, a glass of hot chocolate to warm my hands, an Italian wafer dusted with cocoa powder. But my mind was cold and my intention urgent.”
It is this urgency that produces the effect of anxiety at the thought of not being able to recollect what was meant to be meaningful; and Hilary Mantel’s protagonists (most of whom bear the burden of the narrator’s role as well) bump into events as if they had appeared there in an out-of-space-out-of-time fashion, or as if they were meant to stay hidden, like untold stories.
“Even after all this time it’s hard to grasp exactly what happened. I try to write it as it occurred but I find myself changing the names to protect the guilty.”
(“Sorry to Disturb”)
And speaking of memory, in “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” it’s highly significant that memory is of an event that never happened. So significant, it makes for a good reflection on the nature of chance; chance which, in essence, is a narrative matter – a matter of combinations:
“History could be otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity; the day, the hour, the slant of the light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near the bypass.”