Saturday, May 22, 2010

Black dogs and other imagined realities

I’ve just finished my second Ian McEwan book in a row, and my fifth overall. I’m sure this happens with many of us, that we find ourselves caught up with a writer we enjoy and whose work engages us in a deep, intimate way, and we are loath to leave. We immerse ourselves in book after book and just do not want to part company. The book I just finished is “Black Dogs” and the one just before was “Enduring Love”. For anyone who has read Ian McEwan, you would sense a certain comforting sameness across his writing—not a boring, tedious sameness, but a common thread of deeply felt humanity (and perhaps many writers have this) that is at once despairing and hopeful. There’s a recognition of a core of evil and ugliness that runs through all individuals, and it is in overcoming this or confronting it with the goodness that also runs through us that a story emerges. It’s also the specificity with which large-scale events affect each one of us, and changes our lives, forever.

Take, for instance, this extract:

“As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores, whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions…each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise…. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths,… which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories….. what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?”

(Black Dogs, Vintage, 1998, p.165)

All novelists capture our minds and hearts with something that is universal, yet particular, in a way that we are able to become part of the story, a fly on the wall, feeling everything that every character is feeling:

If one ever wanted proof of Darwin’s contention that the many expressions of emotion in humans are universal, genetically inscribed, then a few minutes by the arrivals gate in Heathrow’s Terminal Four should suffice. I saw the same joy, the same uncontrollable smile, in the faces of a Nigerian earth mama, a thin-lipped Scottish grany and a pale, correct Japanese businessman as they wheeled their trolleys in and recognized a figure in the expectant crowd…. I kept hearing the same signing sound on a downward note, often breathed through a name as two people pressed forward to go into their embrace.

(Enduring Love, Vintage, 2004, p. 4)

That one reminded me of my own private drama at an airport, one of those unforgettable cinematic scenes that one goes back to time and again. 1993, October 20. Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Three days before my younger daughter turned two and my older one, four. I had been in the US for a little under two months, and my husband and children were arriving from India to join me. I had not seen my little girls for almost two months. We arrived at the airport, my friend Ganesh and I, a little early as may be expected, for anxious parents who have not seen their children for a while! Finally, after what seems to be an interminable wait, the glass doors slide open and people, tired, travel worn, unsure, expectant, begin walking through into the arrivals area. It is a good five minutes before we spot them, an adult pushing a trolley with one hand and holding a sleepy but wide-eyed toddler on the other arm, and a little blue-frocked pony-tailed girl, my four-year-old Achala hanging on to his tee shirt by the side. Then she sees me, and in an instant, catapults through the doorway, straight into my arms, the stuffed animal she had been clutching forgotten and on the floor. Six weeks or more melted away and we were together again.

It took a little longer for two-year-old Ananya…she refused to recognize me, perhaps punishing me for having left without her, so there was no “arrival” for her, only a transition from one comfortable, familiar space, to another that took some time to become home.

But back to McEwan and his writing. Atonement showed us how, one person’s mistaken perception and subsequent action could tear apart lives, while Saturday takes us on a minutely experienced 24 hours culminating in a dramatic event that again, breaks down the ordinariness of our everydays, and Chesil Beach places under the microscope one evening in two lifetimes, one which changes their directions forever.

These are the book’s I’ve read. And I’m looking forward to the others….

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