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Headline: Creative Brits

Ian McEwan

Book cover for Ian McEwan's novel SATURDAY showing London flats at night

Image: Ian McEwan website »


Reading Ian McEwan I get the cold, clammy feeling that he knows exactly what frightens me even before I know it myself. In his early novels and stories he wrote about the nightmarish shapes of depression (Black Dogs); a lover led on the dark path of iniquity (The Innocent); and a child stolen from her parents (The Child in Time). He did not flinch from speaking difficult truths, and readers seemed to appreciate this.  In the 1980s there were only two other British writers they liked as well, Martin Amis and the fatwa-defying Salman Rushdie.

In the 1990s, in Amsterdam, McEwan depicted successful men who have betrayed each other sexually and professionally only to fall victim to their fear of growing old. Amsterdam received the Booker Prize, and marked a turning point. As McEwan moved into the new millennium, he defied cultural trends – moving from darkness to a darkness illuminated by light.

An Army kid who spent his childhood in Singapore, Tripoli, and an English boarding school, McEwan had a secret reason for writing. As he grew up he realized that his mother, so hesitant with words, was terrified of his father.  McEwan came to believe that “If the spirit of women was liberated, the world would be healed. . .Pen in hand, I was going to set my mother free.”

It is only years later that he will discover an unknown brother, the child of his mother's affair with his father while her husband was fighting in World War II. His mother gives the child away at a railroad station before her husband returns home. When he dies, she marries the boy's father, and later gives birth to Ian, but she will never try to recover the boy she gave away.

McEwan knows nothing of this, but he may sense a long-buried secret. As an artist he makes a beautiful attempt to free the female spirit and give her a voice in Atonement. Here, bathed in the golden light of a 1930s country house in summer then submerged in the cataclysm of World War II, the girl Briony struggles to distinguish between her imagination and reality, for innocent lives depend on what she thinks she knows.

Most of us know what it is like to have regrets, to have said and done what we wish we had not said and done, and to have left undone what we wish – how we wish it! – that we had shown love or forgiveness or patience that we did not show. In McEwan's hands we come to understand the power of regret, repentance, and atonement.

Atonement was published in 2001, the year when the world seemed remade in the image of terror. After watching footage of the World Trade Center towers, McEwan published an essay in the Guardian that described his feelings as he saw “the first plane disappearing into the side of the tower as cleanly as a posted letter; the couple jumping into the void, hand in hand; a solitary figure falling with a strangely extended arm (was it an umbrella serving as a hopeful parachute?).”  The whispered last messages were spoken into cell phones, and they were always and only about love. It was “all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers”. Those last messages galvanized McEwan, and he responded.

It is a difficult thing for an artist to write so close to an historic event. McEwan chose to pour the richness of a single voluptuous and violent day in the life of a London professional into the novel he called Saturday.

The novel begins with a great peace march in London that is against a war to depose the fascist dictator Saddam Hussein. McEwan writes, "All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets - people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view."

McEwan's protagonist is Perowne, a neurosurgeon. He is caught in some of the march's side action, and suddenly finds himself trying to deploy all his skills in a desperate effort to keep his family alive, and safe from carnage. We empathise with Perowne, because his challenge is ours, and of the utmost practical and ethical importance to each of us. Our physical, mental, and psychological survival will depend on how we respond.

As McEwan urgently asks us to name what is dear to us, and to say how we will protect it, he also asks us to affirm that the way we protect it will be morally right, for otherwise the dearest life we possess will be lost.



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