When Michael Ondaatje won the Golden Man Booker 50 last year for The English Patient – a special prize determined by the British reading public, chosen from among five decades worth of Booker winners – he thanked Anthony Minghella, the late filmmaker who wrote and directed the blockbuster screen adaptation of his 1992 novel. Minghella, he explained to the black-tie crowd, “is no longer with us, but I suspect [he] has something to do with the result of this vote.”
Ondaatje recognized that, while his novel originated in Canada, where it received acclaim and awards, and got a huge boost from its shared win of the Booker (with Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger), it took the American pop-culture factory to make the book a global phenomenon: winner of nine Oscars, including best picture; box-office earnings of more than US$230-million; and the central figure in an episode of the TV show Seinfeld.
Still, with each successive step along the book’s journey, it felt like the world was discovering a secret that Canada had nurtured for itself, without regard for what everyone else thought. Indeed, as Ondaatje said last year, he had gotten his start in the world of small presses. The English Patient’s success was a moment of Canlit gone global.
Margaret Atwood’s win on Monday evening of this year’s Booker – shared with British author Bernardine Evaristo – feels an entirely different sort of triumph. If not predestined (woe betide the pundit or oddsmaker who claims confidence in predicting such matters), her victory for The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was unsurprising, almost anticlimactic.
Atwood herself seemed eager to downplay the achievement. “I kind of don’t need the attention, so I’m very glad you’re getting some,” she said, nodding up at Evaristo, who is a half head taller and seemed to tower over her. “That makes me happy.”
The win comes more than 2½ years into Atwood’s role as a figurehead in the anti-Trump culture wars, a key feminist voice from the past whose prescience about the anti-female strains in a particular type of totalitarianism has proved both terrifying and energizing.
And if Handmaid’s also felt like it could only have come from Canada when it was published in 1986, its sequel arrived in September as a product of the global pop-culture machine. Primed by three seasons of an award-winning, buzzed-about Hollywood TV adaptation of Handmaid’s, The Testaments launched in London with a splashy, star-studded event at the National Theatre that was beamed to more than 1,300 cinemas around the world. When Amazon accidentally broke the publication embargo by sending out 800 copies of the book one week early, it became an international incident and served to amplify the hype.
It was the sort of attention that the mothers and fathers of Canlit could have only dreamed about.
And yet, both Atwood and the folks back home seem ambivalent about her success. On Monday, she quipped that, had the Booker gone to just her: “It would have been quite embarrassing for me, a good Canadian, because we don’t do famous. We think it’s in bad taste.” Maybe that’s why The Testaments is not in the running for either the Giller Prize (where it landed on the long list but failed to make the cut to the final six) nor the Governor-General’s Award.
Atwood will just have to be content with other rewards: Number 1 on The Globe and Mail’s current hardcover fiction bestseller list; four weeks (so far) on the top 10 of The New York Times bestseller list; and worldwide admiration among the reading public. There are worse consolation prizes.
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