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Kaya Genç: Windows in the House of History

Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher offers the same lesson to matter public and private: it could always have been otherwise.

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Image from Flickr user R Barraez D´Lucca.

By Kaya Genç

In his preface to the 1908 New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James famously wrote that “the house of fiction has… not one window, but a million.” In James’s exquisite metaphor, each of the house of fiction’s windows has been “pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.” The dissimilarly shaped and sized windows have figures standing behind them (“with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field glass”) who have been employed with unique instruments of observation: their points of view, through which the author renders the narrative. In her new book of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel applies the Jamesian principle to the house of history, which, according to her, is filled with windows and doors opening to often unsettling historical possibilities.

“Note the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack.”

What if there was a window that overlooked the garden of Princess Christian Hospital in Windsor when the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher underwent eye surgery there in the first week of August, 1983? What if behind that window waited an IRA militant equipped with the sinisterly named widowmaker rifle? What if a door existed in the wall that separated this flat from its neighbor, providing the assailant with the perfect escape route?

None of this happened in reality, of course, but it could have happened and, indeed, does happen in the title story from Mantel’s collection. In the most impressive passage of the story, which has Borgesian overtones of speculative fiction, the narrator asks us to “note the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise.”

Although such passages that infuse postmodernism and historical speculation stand out, it is the mundane atmosphere Mantel carefully sets up in the preceding paragraphs that really gives the title story its special flavor. This atmosphere makes the assassination of a historical figure like Thatcher seem almost a homely act, like brewing tea or doing laundry. If there is something irreverent about Mantel’s story, it is the point of view of the narrator which calmly describes the historical scene taking place before her eyes.

Sly is the best word to describe her tone. Notice the narrator’s bland prose as she starts describing the scene where the assassination is about to take place: “I was putting my Perrier water in the fridge when the doorbell rang.” This carries an echo of the opening of Madame Bovary (here in Lydia Davis’s translation): “We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by a ‘new fellow,’ not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.” Although Flaubert’s reader is not yet aware of the importance of this new fellow, she can anticipate it thanks to the construction of the sentence that creates a sense of expectancy. The “new fellow” who rings the doorbell in Mantel’s story is of similar importance. He is none other than the assassin who is also carrying something large with him—a bag in which he carries his weapon of choice.

There are a few sentences about the cause of the assassination (Ireland and the hunger strikes) but it is Mantel’s use of dramatic irony, rather than the story’s political content, that makes this a really compelling read. Her slovenly narrator mistakes the IRA militant for the son of her plumber. Even after he starts assembling parts of the gun in her flat, she thinks he is a photographer and expects to find a photo camera inside his bag. Although the assassin threatens her and warns her against doing anything stupid, it is as if the narrator wouldn’t do much anyway.

Mantel was, so to speak, the person beyond that window on that August day. She could’ve killed Thatcher if she really wanted to.

With subtle irony on Mantel’s part, the narrator at one point describes the Iron Lady’s influence on Windsor: “I’d been thinking, we don’t know it now, but we’ll look back with fondness on the time Mrs. Thatcher was here: new friendships formed in the street, chit-chat about plumbers whom we hold in common.” This is brilliant, given Thatcher’s famous declaration that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” There are less subtle instances of comedy (“How much will you get for a good shot?’ ‘Life without parole,’ he said”) which are nonetheless hilarious. This is a brilliant example of short fiction—one of those stories one feels could hardly be improved.

Perhaps one reason behind the story’s perfection is that Mantel experienced the moment of historical probability first hand. In 1983 she was living in Windsor. She was, so to speak, the person beyond that window on that August day. She could’ve killed Thatcher if she really wanted to. She inhabited the perfect spot and her “pierced, or still piercible” window provided her with the extraordinary power to change history. In the story, it takes about half an hour for the killer to assassinate the politician; in real life, it took Mantel almost three decades to write and polish her story.

The title story appears at the end of the book and reads like a door that provides an exit from Mantel’s world.

The title story appears at the end of the book (it is the last of ten stories) and reads like a door that provides an exit from Mantel’s world. We enter it through “Sorry to Disturb,” the first story of the collection, which begins with the image of a closed door: “In those days, the doorbell didn’t ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house.” The narrator looks through the spy-hole and sees an Asian man in his thirties, wearing a “crumpled, silver-grey suit.” She opens the door to this total stranger only to regret the decision moments later, just like the narrator of “The Assassination.”

The guest’s name is Ijaz. He’s a graduate of a Miami business school who is in the bottled water business. Married to an American, he hates living in Saudi Arabia and seems turned on by all things western. Ijaz is an anxious, restless, and nervy fellow. “He laughed at nothing. He was always twitching his collar and twisting his feet in their scuffed Oxfords, always tapping the fake Rolex, always apologizing.” With his curious mixture of reticence, low self-esteem, energy, and daring, Ijaz seems to be smuggled out of a VS Naipaul novel.

“Sorry to Disturb” is told from the perspective of a British couple living in Saudi Arabia. The year is 1983, the husband works for a company of consulting geologists, and the narrator-wife is a novelist anxiously waiting for her London agent to sell her book to a publisher. The couple is surrounded by non-western people with whom they have strained relationships. Most of the husband’s colleagues “were housed in family ‘compounds’ of various sizes, but the single men and a childless couple like ourselves had to take what they could get.” A Saudi civil servant lives upstairs; a Pakistani accountant had worked on the same floor with them before they settled there. He “vanished” after a complaint about his impertinence—he has committed the sin of saying “Hello” to his veiled neighbors inside the apartment, which got him into trouble and led to his expulsion.

Like “The Assassination,” “Sorry to Disturb” is autobiographical. Originally published in the London Review of Books in 2009, the story’s details have been taken from the well of imagination but its setting and situations are based on Mantel’s four-year stay in Jeddah, the urban center of Saudi Arabia. Mantel’s feelings of isolation and oppression there are lucidly reflected in a number of passages that take the form of a diary. This formal device brings an increased sense of reality to the story: “December 13th: My diary records that I am oppressed by ‘the darkness, the ironing and the smell of drains.’” The atmosphere of the narrator’s house is extremely depressive, and is reminiscent of the suffocating interiors in Roman Polanski’s early films: “Even with the shutters up it was dim and I needed the strip lights on all day. The rooms were closed off from each other by double doors of dark wood, heavy like coffin lids.” The arrival of the stranger provides a welcome change from this atmosphere.

Doors play a key role also in “Harley Street” where the narrator opens the story with a description of her role as an opener of doors. “I open the door. It’s my job. I have a hundred administrative tasks, and a job title of course, but in effect I’m the meeter and the greeter.” The world of Harley Street is as suffocating and depressive as those in the Jeddah and Windsor stories. The narrator confesses to always finding it “a hopeless street, very long, very monotonous, the endless railings and the brass plates and the panelled dark doors all the same.” The depressive mood continues in “Terminus,” where the narrator sees her dead father on a train in the Clapham Junction railway station.

One of the collection’s best stories, “The Long QT,” is about adultery and death. It is a little erotic sketch taking place on “a soft autumn day, the last of the barbecue weather.” The husband and the object of his sexual desire flirt around a “cavernous” American fridge. She strokes the fridge’s brushed steel doors with her fingertip. “‘Do you ever get in it?’ she said. ‘I mean, on a really hot day?’ ‘It wouldn’t be safe,’ he said. ‘Doors could swing shut.’”

They are desperate for sex and would rather be in the fridge where they would not fear the arrival of his wife. The scene where they make out is brilliantly and subtly rendered: “She nuzzled him and undid his shirt buttons and slid her hand over his warm chest, and let her fingers pause over his heart.” They set a date to properly consummate (“He dropped his head to whisper in Lorraine’s ear. ‘When are we going to fuck?’”) moments before the wife arrives. The reader holds her breath as the wife pauses in the doorway. The words of “The Assassination’s” narrator come to mind: “Note the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack.” The reader of both stories is privileged to see how “history could always have been otherwise” not only in the public but also in the private sphere.

Kaya Genç is a novelist from Istanbul. He is curating a book on Istanbul for the American University in Cairo Press and working on his first English novel. He tweets @kayagenc and blogs at www.kayagenc.net

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