Every year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hosts a series of lectures by a well known thinker – Martin Luther King, John Kenneth Galbraith, Doris Lessing, Barbara Ward have all had a go. Last year it was the turn of the celebrated Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood who chose the somewhat surprising topic of ‘Debt and Payback’. The results are a timely, highly readable and entertaining journey through the literary and historical meanings of being both a creditor and a borrower. Atwood with her usual droll wit weighs up not merely the financial aspects but also the debits and credits of the moral ledger. She touches on a delightful diversity of examples, running from the Ancient Egyptians’ weighing of the soul through to the modern-day debts we are racking up against the planet. Atwood’s prose is dotted with the kind of wonderful juxtapositions you sometimes get when a fiction writer lends themselves to such explorations: ‘In Heaven all debts are cancelled, in hell there are nothing but debts. Hell is like an infernal maxed-out credit card that multiplies the charges endlessly.’ Despite its wondrous wanderings, Payback never loses its sense that the big economic creditors are building up major debits on the moral side. But the case is made with a playful iconoclastic energy to which the partisans of the drier forms of political and economic analysis would do well to pay heed.
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