Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Saturday - Ian McEwan

The rich are people too

Some books seem to obligate critics to concentrate on a lot of issues other than the story at hand, and Saturday is one of them. Most reviews of Ian McEwan’s latest book seem to include an overview of his body of work, and to compare how high or low Saturday fares in comparison. Many have found it lacking. Also, because of the particular narration – the whole book is but one day seen through the eyes of one character – there have been comparisons with works of the same ilk. This is where my lack of canonical reading might serve us all. I’ve only ever read another book by McEwan: Black Dogs. That was more than ten years ago, and while I can’t remember what exactly it was about, I do remember being utterly repulsed by it. In fact, I’ve only undertaken to borrow Saturday from my sister, because she assured me I would hate it. But I didn’t. Ah!

On the other hand I’ve finished it a week ago and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. Because of the setting – the Saturday is the 15th of February of 2003 - throughout the day, the largest anti-war demonstration in London is never far from sight (or when it is, it is followed by TV or radio) or the narrator’s mind – the reader is lead to believe that there is some underlying message about 9/11, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Britain’s role as U.S.A’s ally.

But if there’s one theme in Saturday, it is the misplacement of modern fear – how we collectively can’t shake the terror of going up in flames in some kind of terrorist attack – and yet, we are most vulnerable to everyday dangers, the kind that might blindside you on a casual weekend, as it happens here. Henry Perowne, the narrator, is a character whom I found it difficult to empathize with and I suspect this is a feeling that might be shared with many readers: he is wealthy, lives in a privileged part of London, is a very successful neurosurgeon, happily married to a likewise successful and beautiful woman with whom he engages in apparently copious amounts of sex, and both his children are well in the way to conquering what passes for achievement today: celebrity (the girl is having a poetry book published by a renowned house, the boy about to tour NY bars with his blues band). He drives a Mercedes S500, is bored by non-medical books, and believes more good than bad will come out of invading Iraq. Henry lacks even the charm of being average, for what we have here ladies and gentlemen, is an utterly upper-class man, one whose positivism and unfailing faith in science and progress, are the obvious overripe fruits of being born in a country that was, not so long ago, the metropolis of a worldwide empire. We can be sure that Perowne is firmly anchored in that part of the western world that in Orhan Pamuk’s words is “scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population”.

Henry Perowne and his family are a bunch of privileged parasites who go to Oxford University or travel the world instead, and who spend their holidays in a chateau in France with their poet grandfather. I, for one, have wished the likes of them dead, many times. But here is the thing: after spending a whole day in Henry’s head I couldn’t wish him ill anymore, because I found out he was a caring and kind person. And it wasn’t just that the big house came through his wife’s side of the family, that he hates his father-in-law, or that he’s a bit of a coward when it comes to physical confrontation.

I now knew he had been brought up by a single mother in a typical middle class home, that seeing his mother consumed by Alzheimer’s made him feel that strangely human mixture of feelings where you want to avoid the person who doesn’t remember you, and yet feel guilty for not making a visit they don’t even know you promised to make; that he doesn’t believe his faithfulness to his wife is remarkable, since he had never been attracted to other women; that he genuinely admires his children’s talents even though they manifest in areas far from his own profession; that he respects his co-workers and thinks of his patients as individuals. He is probably one of the few neurosurgeons who admit, even to themselves, that what they do is glorified plumbing. Even the dinner he cooks for the family reunion is humble and hearty – a fish stew.

While we all have our weaknesses, sharing them might go a long way when it comes to not disliking someone. With Henry Perowne I can pinpoint the exact moment when I started feeling a rapprochement. It was accompanying him to the fish market, where, looking at the fish, he can’t help but recall a new research which confirms that they also feel pain, and wonder what this knowledge means to our “circle of moral sympathy”: “though he’d never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he’s prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick as always, the key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies”. Though he’s a forty something male, a rich neurosurgeon, and I’m an unemployed twenty-something female, when you get right down to it we’re both hypocrites. In the end isn’t that what makes us human? Now that’s a message, McEwan.

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