This past couple of weeks, I have really been pondering about wars. I happened to read Ian McEwan's novel, "Atonement", and it put into perspective wars, big and small. Till now, I have felt sorry for most of the wars I have read about, in a sort of distant way - the world wars, the Civil war and their aftermaths. Even the Indian war of independence, for all the patriotic feelings it generated in me was - well, just a statistic. What mattered was who lost and who won, and how many people were killed. This book changed the statistics to something very personal. Each person who died in all these cataclysms was some body's husband or wife, lover, sibling or parent. To an extent, the movies "Life is Beautiful" and "Border" try to do it too, but "Atonement" is in a class by itself.
Atonement is the story of Briony, a thirteen-year old girl in 1935. How her precocious imagination brings about a crime, and how she atones for it, is the backbone of the novel. The story itself is simple. What makes the novel so very enjoyable is the lyrical words used by McEwan. He has a great gift for words, and is capable of painting pictures with his pen. Pictures so real that we are transported to a different time and place, and made to feel the characters' emotions as our own. Another great point about Atonement is its naturalness. All events happen one after the other in natural succession. We do not see McEwan thrusting his ideas upon any of the characters, though they are the products of his imagination. We always feel that the characters speak and act of their own accord, not because McEwan wills it.
Perhaps what impressed me most in the novel, was the description of WWII. Robbie Turner, one of the main characters in 'Atonement', is recruited by the English army and sent to fight for France. But the English army cannot match the German onslaught, and a retreat is ordered. While getting to Dunkirk from his station, he witnesses much destruction. He sees a child's leg, just a leg dangling from a tree, and it makes him sick. He tries to rescue a mother and her child from German bombing, but fails. There is hopelessness, death and distress everywhere. The soldiers smoke to keep hunger away, and water is scarce. The taunts and concern of his companions, the attitude of soldiers desperate for food, drink, rest and love make a deep impact on him, and us. The mind boggles when one thinks of the enormity of the carnage caused by the second world war. So many lives lost, so many hearts torn asunder because of the fancies of just one madman who happened to be ambitious and powerful! I used to consider the 'peace and no change' concept simplistic, but since reading this book, I have almost become a pacifist (contrary to my liking). Now, when I think about war, I see the dangling leg of a child in my mind's eye, and it really hurts.
'Atonement' was also in the news for wrong reasons. McEwan was accused of plagiarism . This accusation notwithstanding, I loved the chapter on the nurses' work. Service to the patients while not minding their own physical difficulties is what they learn during probation. They wear neck-biting uniforms, inhale disinfectants all day and their identity is reduced to just a badge...
McEwan uses the name 'Turner' for Robbie throughout the war-description. At the hospital, the nurses are not allowed to reveal their first names to the patients; it is an unwritten rule. That is how war and death are. First names and personal details, emotions, ideas and everything else that make one human life distinct from another are completely obliterated. One just becomes one of many, just a statistic.
There is one aspect of war, positive to some. That is economic revamping. Some businesses thrive during war and after war (I suppose that is why wars are made!). I started wondering about the ethics of manufacturing chocolate bars to distribute in the army (and actually wanting the war to happen, so this chocolate-bar-business may thrive), but I did not get anywhere. I go one way, and it is communism that I detest. And the other way does not look good either. My question is, where does the layperson stand, when it comes to issues like this? Is a person allowed to be selfish? If so, how selfish can (s)he be, without transgressing ethical and moral boundaries? This is a question that does not have an answer.
'Atonement' is a great novel. It is a serious book, definitely worth a serious read. I did not particularly like the ending, though. It leaves one with a calm but yet sinking sort of feeling, and my Indian mind would have been more at ease if the ending were a little more cheery. But perhaps it is just as well... When life itself ends in tragedy so many times, why shouldn't a novel?