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Friday, 8 June 2018

The Zoo Keeper's Wife and Gilead


From the end of January until the last week of May I was on one kind of painkiller or another. By March 14 my lower back pain had responded to Co-codamol and Naproxyn. From March 20th, after being given inappropriate physiotherapy exercises to try , I needed Tramadex simply to get to sleep. All the while I was taking my analgesics I was slipping in the odd glass of white wine and Aperol spritzer. (My GP said I could.) I was on the maximum meds and sometimes needed more pain relief than even those strong drugs could provide. At times I was unable to move but as the irritation around the disc and sciatic nerve got less, and once the cold snows of March had passed, I was able to walk for thirty minutes a day. I was visiting the GP surgery more than I had ever done and decided, in April, to have a health MOT. Oh woeful day!

I believed I was doing well until the results of the MOT came through. A practice nurse told me I was overweight and I had to lose a stone. I also needed to have other tests run to ensure I hadn’t damaged vital functions through my carrying of extra fat. I did explain I’d been unusually inactive for a couple of months but she wasn’t impressed. Indeed I felt like a school girl who had turned up to class in dirty knickers. After that I had a dental appointment. Having got into the dentist's chair expecting a filling I came out, fifty minutes later, my mouth wedged with bloodied cotton wool. He'd had to extract a perfectly good tooth...and it didn't want to be pulled. Back to the heavy-duty painkillers for another ten days.

My concerns are nothing, however, in comparison with the plight of women incarcerated in war-torn lands or enduring oppression in misogynistic regimes. Women in such countries are likely frightened of, or indeed prevented from, walking the streets in the towns where they have grown up. Going shopping for basics in a war-torn city can be fatal and likely result in little or no food being left on the shelves once the stall, or whatever constitutes for a bazaar or shop, has been arrived at.
And I’m bothered, as are so many in the rich first world, about being overweight…

My weight-reducing exercises and diet are paying dividends, I'm glad to say. My waist is shrinking and the scales show I am losing weight effectively. So far, so good. But what of women who have no choice? No shelter? No food? These are quite different problems.


 While watching ‘The Zoo Keeper’s Wife’, set in Warsaw in 1939, just after the Nazi invasion, I couldn’t help draw a comparison between the lives of women there, being bundled into carts and hidden while Nazi guards checked the cart driver’s papers, and the life of June in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ June, the protagonist, is whisked into the backs of trucks, left in disused buildings - until ‘it’s safe to move’ - in the dystopia of Gilead, the USA of time yet to come.

In both novels women are being protected from soldiers who might rape them, others who might assault them or beat them, enslave them or send them away. What have we learned as a human race about how to treat each other? Margaret Attwood said, when writing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ that all events – the hangings, the servitude, the forced procreation – had actually occurred at some time in some part of the world. In 1939 Jewish women were the ones targeted for brutal treatment, along with their men folk, their elders and their offspring. In dystopian America any fecund woman is treated as a reproductive machine. There simply to produce a child. Merely another part in the baby factory.

In both films, ‘The Zoo Keeper’s Wife’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ dark interiors, cruelty, fear - but also great bravery - characterise the prevailing atmosphere. Whether it’s Europe 1939 or a broken USA of the future the way human beings treat each other can be truly inhuman. To describe such cruelty as animalistic is wrong. Animals kill when they are hungry. Few are cruel.

My cat, who can be a terror when he’s hungry, is lying at my feet while I type. He’s behaving as a cat can: friendly, warm, purring and content. It’s only when he’s hungry that he hides, ambushes us as we walk past and grabs us by the ankles. Only when he’s hungry, mind. It is when resources are in short supply or one country invades another or men and women have become infertile that human beings inflict pain on each other, worse than any animal that’s hungry. One can only hope for world peace and for human interaction to become civilised and co-supportive. As a species we still have a long journey to make. And, according to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the future will be no better. I should stop grumbling about being on painkillers and be grateful I'm allowed to take them.