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'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher': Hilary Mantel draws controversy for new short story

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(Read caption) 'The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher' is by Hilary Mantel.

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Less than six months after the death of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, award-winning English writer Hilary Mantel has provoked an uproar by writing a controversial short story in which she imagines Thatcher’s assassination.

In “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983,” published online by the UK’s Guardian Friday, Mantel imagines an IRA hit man and an ordinary woman conspiring to kill the prime minister from a window overlooking a street Thatcher frequents.

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“It's a horror story for Thatcher's fans, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for her detractors,” writes the Guardian. “Either way, it's shocking.”

Even more shocking is the story behind the story. 

Mantel dreamed up the macabre tale after spying Thatcher from her own bedroom window more than 30 years ago. Around noon on Saturday August 6, 1983, Mantel remembers seeing the former prime minister from her bedroom window overlooking a quiet street and private hospital where Thatcher was having eye surgery. Mantel said she saw the late leader of the UK just “toddling” around the hospital gardens unguarded when she was struck with the thought. 

"Immediately your eye measures the distance," Mantel told the Guardian, her finger and thumb forming a gun. "I thought, if I wasn't me, if I was someone else, she'd be dead." 

With that, the author freely admits her abhorrence for the late prime minister.

"When I think of her, I can still feel that boiling detestation. She did long-standing damage in many areas of national life.”

Not surprisingly, the story has stirred passions in the UK, where Thatcher is as intensely loved by some as she is detested by others.

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The Daily Telegraph, which reportedly paid a substantial sum to secure exclusive rights to the piece, has now refused to publish it.

“If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate,” Lord Timothy Bell, a friend and former PR adviser to Thatcher, told the Sunday Times. “This is in unquestionably bad taste.”

Mail columnist Stephen Glover described the story as “dangerous nonsense.”

“What I object to is not Hilary Mantel’s detestation of Thatcher, warped though I believe it to be. It is the suggestion that she could, and should, have been bumped off as though she were some deranged South American dictator…

“Mantel’s contribution is peculiarly damaging because, while she appears so mild-mannered, her message is interpretable as a deadly one. If you don’t like your democratically elected leaders, who operate within the rule of law, you can always think about assassinating them.”

Critics have also lashed out at Mantel for publishing the story less than six months after the late leader’s death.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries told the Daily Mail, “It is shocking as it is so close [to Margaret Thatcher’s death] and she still has living family and children. It is about a character whose demise is so recent,” she said.

Mantel has responded to the criticism, including the timing of the piece. 

"I am concerned with respect. I'm not concerned with taste,” she said. “I would have happily concluded the story in her lifetime but couldn't – it was my technical difficulty, not any delicacy. I believe in walking that line. You mustn't be too timid to risk getting it wrong."

She told the Guardian that her story was an examination of why Thatcher “aroused such visceral passion in so many people.”

“Whatever your view of her, she was a shaper of history,” she said, later adding, “I think it would be unconscionable to say, this is too dark, we can’t examine it. We can’t be running away from history. We have to face it head on, because the repercussions of Mrs. Thatcher’s reign have fed the nation. It is still resonating.”

“She is a marvelous person to put into fiction because of the contradictions that run straight through her personality. You always feel she was a walking argument.” 

Of course, this isn’t the first time the award-winning author has courted controversy.

Last year she infuriated Britons for describing the Duchess of Cambridge as a "plastic princess born to breed" in a lecture on "Royal Bodies.”

Mantel is best known for her two Booker Prize winning novels, “Wolf Hall" and “Bring Up the Bodies,” a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII. 

The BBC is adapting the popular trilogy (a third book is set for release in 2015) for television, set to air next year.

Her esteemed status is the reason many in the UK are outraged by her outrageous short story.

Perhaps most interesting, the argument has had some debating about the purpose of fiction and its bounds.

Writing for the Guardian, Damian Barr argues, “Good taste is for people who write about fish forks and napkin rings – it is not the purview of novelists. We want, and need our fiction, to shock us out of the everyday. Stories that stem from reality, a glimpse of a woman from a window, are the most unsettling of all,” he writes. “The crime is that Lord Bell, and the great enraged, don’t get that. Thought is not, as yet, a crime.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.


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