Monday, September 12, 2005

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I would imagine that most of us have had the experience of waking rather suddenly to find ourselves enthralled with the quiet lightness of early morning, an unexplained thrill of anticipation and significance of the moment. Lying still for a moment, and then somehow almost called from our beds to wander in the house, careful not to awaken any of the sleeping—as much to protect our solitude as their sleep. And with just such an awakening, Henry Perowne, the hero of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, finds himself standing before a large window, a wide expanse of sky, as close to mystical experience as most of us will come, “exulting in the emptiness and clarity of the scene.”

But McEwan, like most good writers/thinkers that I know, wants to remind us at once about the fragility of happiness, of peace, of good fortune. From mystical rapture, Henry is jolted into the realization that the point of light in the sky his eyes are drawn to is that of a jet in flames, descending towards Heathrow. And so begins his Saturday, recalled to the present, to war and greed and terrorism.

McEwan is one of the buzz writers of our times, and in that sense I approach him rather suspiciously. But besides being an incredible word-weaver , and (I think) one who really understands the inner life, the lived life of the mind , McEwan also wants to talk to us, right now, right where we are in history. Specifically, he wants to discuss the post 911 world, through the eyes of a Londonite, but one who very much has his gaze on the larger world. The spokesperson for McEwan is a well-off neurosurgeon, married to a successful attorney, parents of two beautiful and successful children. Still, the outlook presented is thoughtfully liberal, due, no doubt, in no small part to McEwan as the eye behind the eye.

The internal dialogue that McEwan spins out, minutely, agonizingly, traveling through this long Saturday is simply stunning, at least to this reader who reads Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, Henry James for just this internal-mind richness. What I appreciate most is the attempt in this book to come to grips with the world we now live in. Was 9/11 the beginning of a hundred years war? At least in a symbolic sense (the war having started long before 9/11) there seems to be such good reason for thinking so. And what are we to do, those in whose name war is waged? Those in whose name the third world is plundered and kept in economic slavery . How do we go about making some real changes , how do we slow the machines of greed, protected by government? What would real political action look like in the world as we know it?

I happened to be reading Terry Tempest Williams’ The Open Space of Democracy in the same time period as McEwan’s Saturday; while Williams book is clearer in its political wonderings, I was impressed by how both writers insist that somehow we cannot effect change without engaging in real dialogue with at least some of the ‘enemy’. There are good minded and good hearted people (with considerably more power than most of us) who (perhaps for confused and misguided) reasons identify with market interests. How do we reach those people, get them to use their energy and power for change rather than for shoring up the cruel and unjust status quo?

Henry is no friend of either Blair or Bush, and his children are firmly opposed to the war in Iraq, but because his medical practice has brought him into close proximity with some casualties of Saddam’s regime, he finds himself torn. A professor from Iraq whom Perowne has treated for an aneurysm on his middle cerebral artery has caused Perowne to reflect, even reconsider.

In the months after those conversations, Perowne drifted into some compulsive reading on the regime. He read about the inspirational example of Stalin, and the network of family and tribal loyalties that sustained Saddam, and the palaces handed out as rewards. Henry became acquainted with the sickly details of genocides in the north and south of the country, the ethnic cleansing, the vast system of informers, the bizarre tortures, and Saddam’s taste for getting personally involved, and the strange punishments passed into law—the brandings and amputations. Naturally, Henry followed closely the accounts of measures taken against surgeons who refused to carry out these mutilations. He concluded that viciousness had rarely been more inventive or systematic or widespread. It really was a republic of fear. It seemed to be clear, Saddam’s organizing principle was terror....
Much like Carol Shields’ final novel, Unless, in which she tried one last time to cope with the complexities and horrors of the modern world, McEwan seems to be thoughtfully engaged in questioning how we got to this world we now live in, and to lay out what hope there is to change things for the better. If there is not much in the way of solution in this novel, there is at least a sincere and interesting investigation.

Quite apart from the political questions that dominate this novel, there are also a lot of suggestions regarding philosophy of mind. Henry, neurosurgeon that he is, has no doubt that minds just are brains, that there is no ghost self apart from bio-neurological functions, and yet he understands the difficulties of explaining consciousness using a physical model.

For all the recent advances, it’s still not known how this well-protected kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn’t doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, thought it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes consciousness? He can’t begin to imagine a satisfactory account, but he know it will come.

For a novel that covers just a single day in the life of its narrator, this is a surprisingly rich read. The passages on religion (and Henry’s skepticism towards it), by themselves, make this novel worth reading. And I have not yet mentioned the ongoing conversation that occurs on the significance of poetry, the ‘war’ between the life of science and the life of imagination/fiction. McEwan seems to have researched his various topics thoroughly, and the writing is smooth and convincing. I have already read his other most recent novels, Amsterdam and Attonement, and after reading this one, I am tempted to go back to all or most of his early novels. He is a great writer with a very fine mind.

1 comment:

  1. Just surfed in....
    Your article is definatly
    "food 4 thought!"