The Martians Claim Canada by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Brilliantly weird, irreverent, this is a must read story about jingoistic nationalism!. I'm not sure I've read everything into this that a Canadian reader would read, but this was such a great pick me up putting a smile on my face this morning. The short story can be found in Granta Magazine and I'd urge everyone to read this.
I've no doubt it takes its inspiration from the quip "what would a Martian think of ....?" Atwood writes up a meeting between 3 Martians in search for "a musical" and the only sentient being they encounter when they land in Canada, a mushroom Amanita Muscaria . Atwood even supplied a sketch of the Martian ship flying above the mushrooms, which look remarkably similar to each other.
The opening line sets the tone wonderfully "The Martian descent to Earth in their spaceship. They intend to go to New York - they want to see something call 'a musical' - but they get the directions mixed up, as many before them have done, and end up on Canada instead, as many before them have also done."
After finding the mushroom, they talk about countries, borders, flags and war, about how human beings build societies yet subjugate those in their way. The mushrooms explains it thus "You draw a line, you put up walls and gates and such, you say some people can't come in and other people can't go out, you say everything in side this country is a certain kind of thing and that's how it is done inside the line you've drawn, you make laws, you have customs and a language, or two languages, or fifty-four languages. You have a flag, which is a piece of cloth with some sort of pattern on it, and it waves around in the wind. Unlike mushrooms: we don't wave anything. Maybe you have national outfits. You have a special song that you're supposed to sing...Some countries have dances, others not" . The mushroom's explanation of humanities constructions of countries just sound beautifully absurd, and of course more so when read against historical absurdities like the Berlin Wall, current ones like the US- Mexico wall, as well as the many identity struggles manifested as linguistic oppression, the marginalisation of native peoples etc.
The mushroom's explanation continues "Sometimes the countries have wars. That's when they cross each other's lines and gates and so forth and try to kill the people in the other country so they can get all their stuff..." The inquisitive Martian naturally asks what stuff is, and the mushroom's answer? "Toasters.... frying pans. Microwaves. All those anti-mushrooms devices. Other stuff too, like land, gold, dead animals and trees. Fish....diamonds"
The Martians ask all the questions for example"what about the people who were already there? The ones without flags?" and the mushroom's responses continue to amuse and hit home on target most effectively"things didn't go well for them" - a bit of an understatement! "What is wheat?" say the Martians. It's anti-mushroom, says the mushroom. Wheat pushed the mushrooms off a lot of land"
Back to the reason for the Martians being here. What is Canada: The Musical? There isn't one, says the mushroom, because for the musicals you need to have a story. YOu need to decide how the story should come out......in this Canada place, they've been arguing about the story for a lot of years" - yes spot on again as Atwood tackles the ownership of history in terms of musical theatre - yes I did say this was an absurd rendering of political points.
SPOILER ALERT - the mushrooms finally persuade the Martians not to seek out New York because I think it's getting hostile to Martians down there" but instead to stay on in Canada and help decide the story of Canada: The Musical.
ashramblings Verdict 4* I loved this absurd ditty from one of the great authors. And thanks to Granta for the special Canada issue
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