Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins Book 3 of the Hunger Games

Katniss has been rescued by the rebels and she is on her way to the now infamous District 13.  She has arrived with several other winners of the games, but unfortunately because they were separated, Peeta has been left behind. Katniss learns that her role in the rebellion is to be the Mockingjay - the symbol of the rebellion.  She is initially reluctant to take on this role until she is offered the opportunity to kill President Snow.

Though her heart is willing, they quickly realise that Katniss is not good at creating canned propaganda for the masses, and so she is forced to go to the front to take live action shots.  Once there, she visits a hospital containing non combatants and learns first hand that the people do in fact see her as a hero.  They strain to touch her, or even just catch a glimpse of her as she makes her rounds.

Through it all, Katniss must figure out whether or not she is destined to be with Gale, her childhood friend, who has come to take on the attitude that to win a revolution, one must think like the enemy, or Peeta, who has had his memories of her stripped and now believes that she is an enemy agent.  If that were not enough Coin, the leader of District 13 does not feel that she has Katniss’ support and has determined that Katniss has served her purpose and can now be eliminated.

The overriding theme in this book is the cost of a revolution.  There can be no doubt that the conditions under the capitol rule were absolutely atrocious; however, in their desire to over throw the capitol, few gave active thought to the kind of government that  would replace capitol rule. This is something we see time and again with revolution and also something that is so rarely examined. How many books or films end with the revolution winning, as if that’s the end of the story? What comes next? How does it happen? A peaceful, just government doesn’t just happen and revolution alone doesn’t guarantee that the new regime will be any more palatable than the old. It’s extremely rare and very encouraging to see this portrayed here - when there are countless examples in our own history of revolutions that replaced the old regime with one that was nearly as bad - and sometimes worse. In this book, we perfectly saw this example - a power hunger revolutionary leader using whatever means necessary to claim power and, in the end, she was indistinguishable from the regime she was replacing.

This descent was sealed by President Coin pushing for one last Hunger Games - only this time it would be the Capital’s children being murdered. The oppression is the same, only the victims were different - here’s the new boss, same as the old boss.

If the survivors of the destruction of District 12 had paid attention they would have seen that the restrictions in place in District 13 mirrored in many ways the same authoritarianism of the capitol.  The leadership was quick to torture people from the capitol and was so strict they issued punishments for daring to leave the cafeteria with unfinished food.  Each person was issued a scheduled which was imprinted on the arm on a daily basis that they were expected to follow. The fact that failure to follow routine was punished with physical pain and that their lives were every bit as regimented under the rule of Coin, should have screamed a warning to the rebels.

This is why one must consider the cost of winning and the deep flaw of the “ends justify the means” thinking. Gale was more than willing to take on the tactics of the capitol no matter who, or how many lost their lives. This can clearly be seen in the liberation of District 2.  While District 2 was definitely favoured by the capitol, the fact that they still were not free was quickly forgotten when the goal became the elimination of the Capitol’s source of weapons. By any means necessary at times has a place in war, but unless one is cognizant of the fact that this approach leaves little separation between the forces of oppression and the so-called freedom fighters, there is a substantial risk of becoming what you despise. In the approach to the liberation of District 2, Gale did not see human beings and that is exactly the way that the capitol viewed residents of the districts.  It is Katniss who sees the horror of his proposal and she realises that something in him has been broken. If we were left in any doubt about the growing similarity of the rebels and the Capitol, it was shown when Katniss didn’t know who it was who set the bombs that killed the children. The worst tactics of the rebels and the worst tactics of the oppressor had become indistinguishable.

Another prevalent idea in Mockingjay, is the importance of a message. The Capitol is so desperate to prevent transmission of ideas that they consider dangerous, they cut out the tongues of dissidents. This means that even when they do finally achieve freedom, they are still unable to impart what they endured or why the Capitol had to be over thrown.  This of course is the physical manifestation of George Orwell’s Newspeak. If you have no ability to communicate dissent, dissent cannot manifest itself. But the constant silencing of dissent is what made the message of the Mockingjay so powerful - a handful of berries, a young woman - a girl - being willing to kill herself rather than obey, a woman willing to grieve for another, even a woman in a costume - that’s all it takes. It shows how hard it is to truly kill the message, truly suppress the idea and the rebellion - how little it took for the Mockingjay to become not just a symbol, but a universal symbol throughout the districts and how much power that one little spark had. It was a wonderful statement on how the message cannot be killed and how quickly and powerfully it spreads. And it shows how one little symbol can carry so much meaning, even when it doesn’t have any inherent meaning of it’s own - and how often do we see that in real life? From Che Guevara’s head, to the banners of the 99% - a symbol carries weight and carries an idea.

Another factor that I really enjoyed is the idea that propaganda is not necessarily the preserve of oppressors. There was a substantial effort to capture the opinion of the populace and frame the story of the war. By becoming the Mockinjay, and participating in videos for the resistance, Katniss’ role in the resistance was to produce propaganda.  She was presented as fighting on the front lines, but saw very little action in comparison to other revolutionaries and in fact, there was a great effort to keep her away from the front.  Because this action was undertaken by the resistance, it was deemed a good but in actuality, controlling the message -- regardless of who is doing it -- or their intent, is problematic because it is dishonest.  In the end, the people of the districts rallied behind a lie and it is this lie sets up the foundation for the idea of ends justifies means approach that the rebels embraced as their means of engagement. What freedom is there in the freedom to be lied to? Especially when we consider that the ultimate goal of the rebels was to establish a republic - and secrecy and lies are the poison of democracy - because how can people vote when they don’t know who and what they’re voting for?

One of things I did not understand was Katniss' bid to kill president snow.  I think it was perhaps the only example of spunky agency on her part in the entire trilogy.  Not only did she set off on a fools errand, so many willingly followed her into the abyss at the cost of their lives.  I can understand the desire for revenge, but to follow with such little chance of survival makes no sense to me. I think it is partially redeemed in that Katniss is not portrayed as being expressly thinking clearly at this point - which brings us to the next point; Katniss as a survivor of trauma.

One of the things that I have loved about this series is that Collins has never been afraid to show the human cost to oppression.  Each person in their own way has had to negotiate PTSD.  In the crucial moment when Katniss finally realises that there is no difference between Snow and Coin and makes the decision to end Coins rule before it can grow roots, her actions are blamed on her mental state.  The idea is presented that she cannot be held responsible because she is crazy. I am sure that part of this was the desire to overlook and explain away Coin’s actions in pursuit of power, but perhaps the most salient reasoning in the minds of the rebels is that crazy people can and should be dismissed, and not held accountable for their actions. This of course is absolutely disableist. It’s a convenient excuse we see a lot in society - we dismiss the actions of someone as “crazy” so we don’t have to examine or consider them. We don’t have to think how desperate they are, how hurt they are, how lost they are - we just shuffle it all under the label of crazy and move on.

Like the previous books, this book is not even remotely simple. There are a lot of complex issues being raised and issues being touched on and analysed. This is a book of layers and nuances - and there are no easy or simple answers. There’s no riding off into the sunset, no happily ever after per se, and no simple certainty. This is gritty - and it’s real and that is what makes this trilogy both powerful and iconic. It both restores my faith in YA and makes me side-eye the drek we have been reading all the more.