Books April 2005

Civilization and Its Malcontents

Alongside a "peace" demonstration in London, a crisis of micro-terrorism
  • Saturday

    By Ian McEwan
    Doubleday/Nan Talese

I rather envy those who only after the "breakthrough" success of Atonement in the United States, or after Amsterdam won the Booker Prize, became readers and admirers of Ian McEwan. Ahead of them, rather than behind, lies the experience of reading Black Dogs, The Cement Garden, and (still, in my view, his masterpiece) The Child in Time. And this avenue of approach would make it easier to savor the maturing—now confirmed in the sober yet scintillating pages of Saturday—of a dual McEwan personality.

The "first" McEwan was (and is) a thoughtful child of the sixties, somewhat hippie-like in many ways, yet tense and gaunt and ironic behind his granny glasses. Much preoccupied with war and power and hierarchy, he helped to map the "alternative" ethos of those who could at least imagine a world without exploitation or bigotry or sexual jealousy. The summa of this Green and quasi-feminist outlook was to be found in the libretto he wrote for the composer Michael Berkeley, whose oratorio Or Shall We Die? provided a highly sensitive register of the anti-nuclear angst that accompanied the Euro-missile debate of the mid-1980s. "Shall we have womanly times?" inquires the chorus in this work. "Or shall we die?"

If one resorted to easy categorization for the sake of convenience, and termed this the "soft" McEwan, there was undeniably a "hard" McEwan in the wings, sometimes prompting himself. This McEwan had been brought up on British military bases overseas, possessed a working knowledge of martial history, could tell you a few things about how a campaign was fought and how the tougher applied sciences were deployed. The two McEwans fused in a useful fictional synthesis, in which the innocent and the idealistic were very often made to confront the nodes of brute reality, or the presence of evil and death—which frequently manifested themselves in the most banal circumstances.

The action of Saturday takes place within the twenty-four hours of February 15, 2003. This was the actual day when the whole of bien-pensant Britain moved into the streets to jeer at George Bush and Tony Blair and to denounce the coming Anglo-American intervention in Iraq. Henry Perowne, a skillful and flourishing neurosurgeon living in the very center of London, finds himself troubled by more than the resulting traffic jam. He is not above the fray, or outside it, but, rather, at a slight angle to it. He does not put any particular faith in the government, and his talented children are with the demonstrators in their hearts, yet his practice has introduced him to an Iraqi exile professor, who has told him what life is really like in the abattoir state of Saddam Hussein, and Perowne's honesty and scruples make him a reluctant prisoner of this knowledge.

No assumption is less safe than that an author's thoughts are his characters' thoughts, which are conveyed in this case in a Runyonesque historical present ("He rises …" "He strides …") that solidifies the context and the actuality. However, one does not have to know very much about the author to realize that Perowne has Ian McEwan's wife, Ian McEwan's parents, a representative cross-section of Ian McEwan's children and stepchildren, and also Ian McEwan's house. This is located in the sub-bohemian area known—after its centerpiece in Fitzroy Square—as "Fitzrovia," a neighborhood already familiar to the readers of Anthony Powell, Patrick Hamilton, and Julian Maclaren-Ross. Having furnished these apparent pointers to himself, McEwan makes a knight's move in the opposite direction, giving us a vivid idea of Perowne's revulsion from much modern literature.

What were these authors of reputation doing—grown men and women of the twentieth century—granting supernatural powers to their characters? He never made it all the way through a single one of those irksome confections. And written for adults, not children. In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings … Others were granted a magical sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high flying aircraft. One poor fellow spotted through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.

Here a reproof to The Satanic Verses is immediately and rather startlingly succeeded by a brusque dismissal of the crucial scene in the author's own The Child in Time, which was published in 1987. It is not self-evident to me that McEwan intends any repudiation here, but certainly nothing is even remotely "magic realist" about Saturday, unapologetically anchored as it is in the material world and its several discontents. And I think I would surmise that the following is McEwan speaking, whether "through" Perowne or not, about the "anti-war" crowd.

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 somber in their view.

And then a sinister note is struck, instantly succeeded by a stress on the innocent and the inane.

A placard of one of the organizing groups goes by—the British Association of Muslims. Henry remembers that outfit well. It explained recently in its newspaper that apostasy from Islam is an offence punishable by death. Behind comes a banner proclaiming the Swaffham Women's Choir, and then, Jews Against The War.

This same dryness and measure is very much present in McEwan's nonfiction writing since 9/11, inaugurated by an essay in the Guardian in which he very daringly underlined the three words—"I love you"—that were most commonly used in the final messages of those trapped on the planes and in the towers, and managed, without any appeal to gross sentiment, to fashion this into a perfect, cool indictment of the murderers. Perowne's Saturday actually begins before dawn, when he glimpses an airplane trailing fire over London as it descends, and wonders if he is witnessing the beginning of another atrocity. He belongs to the camp of those who believe that September 11 was a hinge event, rather than an annoying interruption to the lofty struggle against globalization.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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