Saturday, September 19, 2009

Atwood creates 'green' cult for post-pandemic world in new novel

The fictional religious cult Margaret Atwood creates in her new novel, The Year of the Flood, has a rather unconventional approach to sainthood, having canonized both late Canadian marathon runner Terry Fox and former U.S. vice-president and environmental campaigner Al Gore.

"All of the people who are saints are chosen for reasons that have to do with their saintly interaction with the natural world," Atwood said Friday in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"At lot of them are people that are really quite saintly, aren't they? … Saint Farley Mowat of Wolves, Terry Fox … he's the saint of locomotion without the use of fossil fuels, and there are a number of other people in that category also."

The saints, who also include more familiar figures such as Saint Francis of Assisi, are all part of a religious cult known as God's Gardeners.

Atwood's apocalyptic story is set in a time after a pandemic, when only a few humans remain on the earth, including two women and a man, who are the narrative voices of the novel.

"When the novel opens, we find the two women have escaped the pandemic by being isolated from it," she said.

"One of them is holed up in a spa — which I think would be a fairly good place to be with lots of towels. The facial products are edible, so she's making do in there. The second one is actually locked up. She's in the quarantine zone of an upmarket sex club, and, unfortunately, she does not know the airlock combination that would get her out."

As each of the characters thinks back over the 10 years that led to this point, they reveal the story behind God's Gardeners, a group of strict vegetarians who base their theology on protecting creation.

The idea of the cult is rooted in modern theological thinking, Atwood said, pointing to a "green" version of the Bible that already exists.

"It's got politically correct covers. It's got linen paper," Atwood said. "The green parts [of the text] are printed in green — some of those green parts may surprise you —- and it has an intro by Archbishop Tutu and some theological essays by other people. And at the end, it's got a helpful list of things you can do to become a greener and more righteous person."

"So, this split has already happened in Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., with some of them taking that view [that] we must be custodians and stewards, and the other half taking the view that rapture will happen."

Atwood is wary of thinking of her novel as a warning call about environmental destruction and the potential effects of a pandemic.

She says many scientists and health professionals are already thinking deeply about the environment, and many individuals are trying to live in ways that are lighter on the earth.

Atwood said The Year of the Flood is "part of a general tide of thinking" that she hopes will push politicians to act on environmental issues.

"I think that any book like that, that's about the future, it's not exactly a warning call; it's a blueprint," Atwood said. "Here's a blueprint: is this the house you want to live in? Maybe you'd like to change some of the features."

Atwood just returned from Britain, where she has been promoting her book with a road show that includes artists and volunteers acting out the roles of the fictional followers of God's Gardeners.

Many of these road shows have been held in churches, where the sermons that Atwood wrote for the cult's spiritual leader in the book are read aloud by actual religious leaders.

"In Edinburgh, it was [former Bishop of Edinburgh] Richard Holloway who read, and he practically converted himself he was so good," Atwood said. "When you hear someone like Richard Holloway deliver the sermons, they don't actually sound that funny."

Atwood begins a tour of Canada this week to promote the book.

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