MY TRUE NAME IS A GROWL - Myths and legends turned on their heads

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  • Published 23.06.06

The Tent By Margaret Atwood, Bloomsbury, ? 9.10

Horatio finally gets a chance to tell his side of the story in ?Horatio?s Version?. Chicken Little becomes a tale of global warming in ?Chicken Little Goes Too Far?. Helen of Troy travels in time to the present, and finds herself condemned as a white trash gold-digger in ?It?s Not Easy Being Half Divine?. Salom? undergoes the same transformation in ?Salom? Was a Dancer?, and is labelled as a promiscuous brat accusing her religious studies teacher of sexual assault. Constructs of divinity too are delivered a body blow in ?Impenetrable Forest and Bottle?.

?As it is, I?m watery, I ripple, from moment to moment I dissolve into my other selves,? Atwood writes in ?No More Photos?. Atwood has always seen truth of the self ? and versions of this and other truths portrayed through art ? as a relative, shattered and fragmented thing, forever subject to time, space and perspective. Her preoccupation here is with personal and artistic choice: if it is all a matter of how the truth is viewed, how far can the individual and the artist manipulate perception? If photographs impede such machinations, stories facilitate it. In the opening lines of ?Life Stories? she writes: ?Why the hunger for these? If it is a hunger. Maybe it?s more like bossiness. Maybe we just want to be in charge, of the life, no matter who lived it.?

Are we then at liberty to edit our pasts and those rightfully belonging to others? Horatio resentfully recalls Hamlet commanding him to tell the story of the Prince of Denmark to the world after he is gone, but how could he? And if he did, whose truth would he construct. Horatio was of course beaten to the task by a wily plot-thief: ?He filched my material and appropriated my voice and exploited a human tragedy that was really none of his business. Anyway his play was too long.? Nothing is sacred here, not even Shakespeare. And could it be that, in fact, their stories are the same, Hamlet doomed to inaction because of his ?morose dithering? and Horatio because of his philosophy?

Social commentary is never absent from Atwood?s work, and it recurs here. Her concern for the environment specifically surfaces in a number of the stories. This intersects with her rejection of man?s snatched symbols in the fascinating poem, ?The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins?. The bear is the first to raise his voice in mutiny: ?Forget the fairy tales, in which I was/ your shaggy puppet, prince in hairshirt, surrogate/ for human demons...I take back what you have stolen,/ and in your languages I announce/ I am now nameless. My true name is a growl.? This prompts the lion and the eagle to follow suit, resulting in a natural world claiming back all it had been robbed of by civilization, with implications that challenge the theology of creation itself.

This is one of two poems in The Tent, the other being ?Bring Back Mom: An Invocation?. This satiric verse dismantles one of the most potent, dangerous, dearly-held myths ? the perfect housewife and mother, who must stay at home and do the washing and cooking and the ironing, whose highest honour was to be deemed ?Queen of the waffle iron,/ generous dispenser of toothpaste, sorceress of Mercurochrome?. But even these paltry rewards have been taken away from her. ?We miss you, Mom./ Though you were reviled to great profit/ in magazines and books/ for ruining your not loving them enough,/ by loving them too much,/ by wanting too much love from them,/ by some failure of love.? Mom finally disappeared, gripped by death or insanity. Bring her back, is Atwood?s cry, because a return of this ?brooder over the darning egg? would mean all ?the wholes of the world would be mended?. This is Atwood at her bone-chilling best.