Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Atonement by Ian McEwan

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?


bellur said...

nice review, p.
you have made me eager to read this book!

December Stud said...

I ahd written a post on "Atonement" several months ago, without reading the book, that is. It was mainly on plaigirism and that junk. I just have a feeling that I neither have the seriousness nor patience to read "Atonement". Nice review though :)

And, we all know that the plaigiarism stuff is all nonsesne, especially when he has acknowledged that he was inspired by the original.

Anonymous said...

You should read Atonement. It is not like Jeffrey Archers or the Grishams. It qualifies as literature (I am not trying to be a snob here - but it looks like I have succeeded). You of all people must have the seriousness to read this. To state it shortly, Atonement is story of love between two people seen by a third person who atones for what she has done.

And as far as patience goes, Atonement is not even 300 pages long. I figure reading it would give greater rewards for a literary enthusiast such as yourself.

Parijata, sorry for hijacking your post.

Your post, though well written, is probably not a review per se, (you will agree to this, I am sure) and focused mainly on an important part of life, though not that of the novel. Good observations, anyway.

parijata said...

Bellur avare,
Thanks. Do read that book, it is a very thought-provoking read.

I have read your post on Atonement. Thanks for the appreciation. But do read the book when you can. McEwan stands up there with Bhairappa (I know I'm comparing apples and oranges, nay, green beans here, but you get the point).

Agree with you. I do not consider this a review. It started off as a post about wars (in fact, the link to this post actually says "war- what is it good for ;)), and my reading of Atonement made me digress so much that I had to make it a post about the novel itself.

And yes, there is the love aspect in the novel, but I was content to leave it at "..was somebody's lover.." because emotions in general, and this emotion in particular as portrayed in the novel, feel too personal to be discussed and dissected in what I euphemistically call a review. I just do not think that I can do justice to such a masterly handling of feelings, by writing about it.

December Stud said...

Hmmm...now that two people have asked me to read the book, I guess it's time I do buy it. Alright guys, I promise, I will read it.

And to think that someone specifically digs at Archer and Grisham, I wonder if I know "anon" personally ;)

nIlagrIva said...

You sure do, man! :)

I got lazy the other day and commented as Anonymous. That was my comment only.

Not that I have anything against Archer and Grisham. Both of them are excellent story tellers. If I want some fast paced read, I will surely go to them. In fact, I bought a bunch of Grishams the other day (Firm, Rainmaker, etc.,) and finished reading them in 3 days! (in the middle of a work week)

But I want you (and others) to read Atonement - that is why I had to invoke Archer and Grisham (your favorites - mine too) to get you to read that. Ian McEwan is a modern great!

DS, looking forward to your review of Atonement. BTW, it is being made (or has it already been?)into a movie with the fair Keira Knightley in a main role.

parijata said...

It has already been made into a movie .
Dunno when it will be released in India.

Aram said...

16 Questions for Ian McEwan (from Time.com - ignore if already read)

Known for dark portrayals of humankind, the acclaimed British novelist takes on a sexually frustrated marriage in his newest work, On Chesil Beach. Ian McEwan will now take your questions

How do you select a topic for a novel? Edward Turner ST. CATHARINES, ONT.

My novels usually start in a very chaotic way. It never feels so clear as selecting a topic. I write my way into them. Though I am keen to make my new novel not anything like my last, so often I am in flight from the last thing I did.

You write about very dark subjects. Why is that? Mahtot Teka, ADDIS ABABA

Look at the front page of today's newspaper. We are a troubled lot, and literature is bound to reflect this. Any examination of the human state will take you into some dark places.

I find your more recent work superior to your earlier, perhaps edgier writing.
Do you ever reread your writing from years ago and think you would have approached it differently? David Parr, PORTLAND, MAINE

I have dipped into it from time to time, and I don't feel any great urge to change anything. I agree that they were certainly darker, but I don't think they were less complex. I looked at The Innocent about six months ago, and I really enjoyed it.

On Chesil Beach had me sympathizing with Edward and Florence equally, but my wife sided with Florence. Did you want the reader to side with one or the other? Nathaniel Winn LITTLE ELM, TEXAS

Absolutely not. The narrative really tries to be compassionate toward them both and ascribe no blame to either.

How much research goes into creating a character like the neurosurgeon in Saturday? Jarret Bryan, BROOKLYN, N.Y.

That book required a fair bit of research. I met a neurosurgeon who took me under his wing for two years. Eventually I started attending operations and procedures with him. I was even once mistaken for a neurosurgeon during an operation.

The character in Saturday struggles with his feelings about the invasion of Iraq. How would it be different if you wrote it today, two years later? Dan Montgomery MCLEAN, VA.

I think [the protagonist] is bound to wish that it had never happened. The occupation has been a disaster from the very first day, and I speak as one who really wanted it once it had started--really wanted it to succeed. So I guess it would be a darker novel, because I don't see much virtue in staying or in running.

When you are writing a book, do you expect it to influence your readers in a certain way? Ju Huang, STAMFORD, CONN.

Readers are so different from one another. They are very hard to corral into one place with your writing. I think reading, much like writing, is a sort of journey. I let them take what they will.

How do you feel about your brief detainment by U.S. immigration officers a few years ago and the current immigration crisis? Salwa Geraisy, SAN DIEGO

My own thing [a 24-hour-plus detention] was a silly bureaucratic matter; I couldn't compare my case to [that of] migrants coming from the south. Society is more vibrant and creative if its citizens are culled from as many races as possible. But I think we must not tie ourselves down to accusing anyone who raises the matter of numbers as being a racist.

What's your take on there being fewer literary reviews in newspapers and magazines? Genevieve Powers, BROOKLINE, MASS.

The problem is really a small part of a larger one, which is the decline of newspapers. Publishers seem to be very keyed up to embrace the Internet, but I don't have much time for the kind of site where readers do all the reviewing. Reviewing takes expertise, wisdom and judgment. I am not much fond of the notion that anyone's view is as good as anyone else's.

You are described as a novelist who has a profound insight into the human condition. What is your prognosis? Ardoth Rutherford HUNTINGTON, W.VA.

[Laughs.] I guess the sum of all my novels would be the answer to that question. It is pretty hard to do the human condition in a couple of lines, but I think there is room for optimism.

TIME's interview with the British novelist continues on Time.com. Read these extra questions with Ian McEwan.

I was reading a New York Times article that said no one has written a successful novel about 9/11. As a macabre writer, would you consider writing a novel based on the Bush administration and the war in Iraq? —David Shaka Barnwell, Kingston, Jamaica

Well I guess Saturday touched on those things. I wouldn't rule it out that is all I can say. I mean it has changed so much of how we think about the world. It is bound to influence something I do in the future, but whether it would be specifically about the Bush Administration, I couldn't say.

On account of the disappearance of the little girl in Portugal, I have been thinking a lot about one of your books lately, A Child in Time. Did you base the book on a real story or was it all just a creation of your very sensitive mind? —Verónica Meersohn, Puerto Montt, Chile

It was something I invented. Although stories like this are occasionally in the newspapers—so I must have read a couple of stories in newspapers about such things. It struck me as peculiarly painful and retched experience for a parent to go through, especially if it is not resolved quickly. One could say bleakly that with the tragedy of a death there is some chance of making some kind of adaptation, but with this the wound is always opened and I really feel for those parents.

The strength of your novels is, over and above the storylines, the psychological examination of the principal characters. But that is perhaps the most difficult aspect of a novel to transfer to film successfully. Was that something that you struggled with in any of the film or TV versions of your works and do you ever write your novels with screen adaptability in mind? —Dan Montgomery, McLean, Virginia

No I never do. It doesn't really arise. I generally sat back and let other writers do the screenplays of my novels. The process is often long, repetitive and frustrating. I feel it would be the expense of novel writing for me. It is also a little dull for the novelist to turn his or her own work into screenplays. There is a lot of going back over the same thing and making it slightly worse or simplified. I did it once with John Schlesinger for The Innocent. It took up three years of my time and I could have written anther novel in that period, and the result wasn't all that good. So I decided that in the future I would remain slightly involved as an executive producer, which means I would at least be consulted on casting and the various drafts of the screenplays. And that has been the case with Atonement, that was the case with Enduring Love and that will be the case with Saturday. But all that said, finally it is the director's medium and the director will call the shots and make his own decisions and he will take your notes on board and thank you for them, but he is isn't obliged to follow them. It is a difficult process. There is always a problem that cinema has that it can't represent consciousness, the flow of thought or the interior quality of mind that the novel can do so well.

Can you describe the relationship between your reading and your writing? —What kinds of books do you read? —Eamon Murphy, New Haven, Conn.

I real a lot of nonfiction. I have just been reading a book about Arab culture. Another book about a young man who got drawn into Islamist groups in his late teens. I am reading a book about the peculiarly English nature of evolutionary theory. I just read a long story by Edgar Allen Poe. A novel by a friend of mine called John Preston called, The Dig, which I think is very fine. I am fairly omnivorous I guess. Hmm… what is by the bedside? I am re-reading Christopher Hitchen's book on God, because I am going to be on stage talking to him about it. I have been reading some history too. I think all reading eventually it does have an effect, but not a direct effect on what I eventually do. Something I think I am reading haphazardly and then realize what I was doing was researching and sometimes the material does grow out of the reading or the reading is an expression of what is on my mind, but it is certainly not very programmatic.

What are the qualities that a good writer must have? —Ruma Ghosh, Muscat

Staying power. Physical fitness. Patience. Luck. Fierce ambition. Self-criticism. Watchfulness. Humility.

Do you enjoy more dealing with your imaginary characters or dealing with people in reality? Do you ever feel imprisoned by your own imagination? —Ju Huang, Stamford, Conn.

I prefer the real. The representation of characters in novel is but a thin a slice of what a real person is. It is a kind of trick with smoke and mirrors I can leave my imagination behind when I stand up from my desk.<>

Anonymous said...

It is not that 'life itself ends in tragedy so many times'. A writer slices a piece of historical time and weaves a story that unfolds during from THAT point to THIS, wherefore it has to start abruptly and end abruptly. The pleasantness is only the finesse of narrative.