To home page.

Below: Ian McEwan's Atonement and Saturday

Marina Lewycka: a Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
( a novel ).

Brian Aldiss wrote a luxuriantly poetic science fiction called "Hothouse". His American publisher was mindful of it ending in the horticultural book lists. So, in the US, it appeared as something like: The long afternoon of the Earth. You can see that Lewycka might have a similar problem with mistaken identity, not beneficial to sales. The joke might be at the expense of her royalties.

If you are in on the joke that this is really a novel, you are still not spared some Ukrainian history, political as well as technical. This is perhaps the burden of the joke. The author is making as light as she can of it, but the Ukrainian history just weighs too heavily to forget. At almost the novel's last gasp, the fact gets spat out, at last, that the Stalin-Churchill pact let Poles stay in Britain, while Ukrainians were deported.

On the way, there is much more demoralising information, in the Ukrainian context, about man's inhumanity to man. I found it interesting, tho still depressing, even after having long since waded thru all three volumes of "The Gulag Archipelago." Not to mention other dissident works.

The novel's Ukrainian professor, Dubov brings us up to date:

But Ukrainia must find her own way. At present, alas, we accept unquestioningly everything from the West. Some of course is good; some is rubbish...When we can put behind us the terrible memories of the gulag, then we will begin to rediscover those things which were good in our former socialist society. Then these advisers will be seen for what they are - truly robber-barons who plunder our national assets and install American-owned factories where our people will work for miserable wages. Russians, Germans, Americans - all of them - when they look at Ukrainia what do they see? Nothing but a source of cheap labour.

Before that, Dubov talked of the Scandinavian model, which sounds more promising than rediscovering virtues in Leninism or Stalinism.

An exchange between father Nikolai and younger daughter Nadia, the narrative character, is more to the point:

'You were a terrible father, Pappa. A tyrant.'

He clears his throat. 'Sometimes tyranny is preferable to anarchy.'

'Why have either? Why not have negotiation and democracy?' Suddenly this conversation has become too serious.

But from my point of view, that's just the point that the conversation gets interesting. It doesnt take much more thought to see what is basicly wrong with political economy in the East and in the West. To put the situation in its simplest terms, the Soviet experiment failed because it replaced the anarchy of capitalism with a state monopoly on the economy. But this also destroyed the competitiveness of free enterprise. This ending of individual or private initiative contributed to the backwardness and collapse of the Soviet system. Even those controlling the commanding heights of the economy privately admitted the experiment had been a failure. And it remained an irreversible failure because, the Communists had monopolised political power and there was no legitimate means of handing over power to a different ideology that might improve the system, before it collapsed or exploded in aggression against its neighbors.

This tremendous concentration of both political and economic power brought the so-called Soviet system unprecedentedly close to the absolute power that corrupts absolutely. As C S Lewis said, he was a democrat because no man is good enough to be another man's master. A one-party state in a war of suppression against its own people is more likely to try to channel popular reaction against other nations. The habit of war occupation they practise at home is their self-conditioning for a bellicose attitude to foreigners. Rulers, who keep down a nation, find a safety vent for the aggression they impose, in aggression towards other nations. This leads to an arms race, making war more likely. A security for a peaceful world is that human rights are internationly observed.

Meanwhile, the world has been going to waste because of economic anarchy, freedom in the unregulated sense of freebooting or plunder and destruction of the world's ecology and legacy of resources to future mankind. This was true of the Communist monopoly of anarchy, as it is true of the private corporations' hegemony in anarchy, waste and pollution. Corporate capitalism is destroying the planet as a fit place for humans and our fellow creatures to live in.

In short, political democracy and economic democracy ( essentially effectively elected occupational second chambers as well as political first chambers ) are both needed to save your children's future and that of fellow creatures, whose survival is threatened. I admit that to make that democracy effective, education is needed in how to think, such as that extended common sense called scientific method. And beyond that, there must be a religious respect for others, which one's self-respect does not allow one to transgress. In a literature review, the problem of good government can only be given sketchy solutions.

It is just this respect that the villain of the Lewycka's novel, Valentina lacks. It is what makes her such "a monster." She is a "robber bride" of a much cruder cut than Margaret Atwood's. You couldnt laugh at Zenia. She was too deadly. She doesnt haul her pirate flag till there is no escape. But Valentina is more serious a problem, representing something like a new invasion of the Danes into a Saxon England of settled marauders. Vera and Nadia are the first generation settlers, who even have occasion to reproach their family situation as also being one of "economic migrants."

In other words, Valentina lacks restraint. Her greed is her ultimate undoing but not before she has brought havoc. She finds every way to seduce and bully Nikolai out of his income and capital, such as it is. Her highwayman tactics appear to be based on real happenings. Just the other day, a young woman from one of the Baltic states was convicted of murdering the old man, she married, and who falsely claimed he was a millionaire.

Valentina out-rages Nikolai's daughters at the rapacity of her egotism. Her desire to triumph cannot keep quiet when she suffers a set-back. She is a creature possessed by the devil's bargain of the affluent society. It gives her a demonic power in attaining its ends, but she finds herself in the cheap labour market.

In chapter three, the lonely old man Nikolai deceives himself he is saving Valentina from "the horrors" of modern Ukrainia. The catalog includes the selling of furniture made from Chernobyl-polluted forests, "so that people are irradiated in their own homes." The passage concludes:

Worse than the external collapse of law and order is the collapse of any rational or moral principles. Some people run to the old Church, but more run to the new fantasy Churches they are bringing in from the West, or to soothsayers, millenarians, out-for-a-quick-buck visionaries, self flagellants. Nobody knows what to believe or whom to trust.

The novel continues with a further twist to this argument but I dont want to make the quotation too long. In any case, the out-come is inconclusive. It turns out that Valentina is a slut, because she always had someone to clean up after her, as one of the old official elite. It is difficult to tell whether the author despairs or hopes for the British legal system, or for human nature. She has a Dickensian tolerance for her villains without mitigating their obnoxiousness. Her novel is no routine Hollywood revenge saga.

The "collapse of any rational or moral principles" is not just a problem of the collapse of the Communist ideology in Eastern Europe. It is just as much the sickness of the West, where politicians, in monopolising democracy, are destroying it, even as they defend their world interventions in its name. In practical terms, to be truly democratic, the West must have effective elections, without monopolistic safe seats and with freely transferable voting. This would allow representatives freedom to think from controling party vested interests. Just as education might teach children to think freely, rather than to be corporation fodder.

Elections should not be the monopoly of politicians. There has to be an economic or occupational franchise, democracy's second dimension, in government levels' second chambers, to representatively test political theory with economic practise, to bring scientific progress to the public interest, instead of greedily destructive vested interests.

The hard-back of Lewycka's novel comes in an artily reconstructed Soviet-era dust-jacket, made of low grade re-cycled paper with primitive two-tone ink format ( if not as primitive as my web page design ). The period effect is spoiled by two commendatory corporation stickers, which give the game away as to the real power that holds sway, today, even in literary taste. Capitalism, regrettably, will survive this novel's nip of the hand that feeds it.

One of the stickers says: Picked as a BBC Page Turner. I admit it kept me turning the pages. This is better recommendation than being short-listed by some committee ( the other sticker ), however the author might miss the fortune from winning.

Richard Lung.
25 march 2006.

Ian McEwan's Atonement.

The road to Damascus

The road to Damascus.

A world religion is founded on atonement: 'At-one-ment'. The Christian god makes himself at one with his creations, so God's creatures may become at one with God.

McEwan's novel is also about reconciliation. His main character, Briony seeks a reconciliation with those she wronged, as a thirteen year old girl. The nearest to God, she wishes to accommodate, is her conscience. But atoning for her personal 'crime' proves beyond her.

One is driven to wonder, by the end of the book, whether the intractable nature of Briony's problem is determined by the limitations of its secular bounds. Whether or not we believe in redemption in another existence - or many existences - we can safely say that this world wont get us far.

Given this dismal conclusion, it may come as a surprise, that this readers' club book was so far the one most avidly read by me. It is perhaps worth asking myself why. Not because of the period and place the novel was set in: an English country house of the vulgar new rich just before the second world war.

The impression is given that this small upper class was England. The masses are marginal to the story. No doubt this is how things were. The author absents himself and his undoubtedly modern view-point by making the main narrative character, Briony into a budding author. The effect is as if a nineteen-thirties novel were being written at the turn of the millenium.

I doubt that's really possible. Each period has its unique character that can never quite be caught by those of another age, especially once the passing on of personal experience between the generations has been lost. I admit that there may be periods and places far apart that have common outlooks, so that something of the spirit of the former age may be revived. But shared themes are bound to come with variations.

The author of the period novel tries to put you imaginatively on the spot with a fund of authentic detail introduced spontaneously in the course of the narrative. If he does his job well, he may create sufficient illusion to make readers feel they have escaped from their captivity in the present.

Older people are still close enough to pre-war England to critically assess how well McEwan's short time-machine trip works -- and so is the author. He is on fairly safe but not too adventurous ground. Later in the story, he compensates, for the lack of action, by carrying the reader off to the British army's retreat to Dunkirk. This has none of the propaganda heroics that would mark it out as contemporary desperation or relief. It's detached objectivity marks it out as well after the event.

This seems to be the opposite to what Ive just been arguing. Getting further away from a conflict, in which we had an interest in winning, we see it with more truthful detachment. McEwan used unpublished documents, in the Imperial War Museum, of soldiers and nurses in 1940. These were valuable precisely because they were not trying to create a public effect, merely to tell their families and friends how it was with them.
But here the novelist is actually assimilating contemporary private literature. For authenticity, if you cant beat them, join them.

Social history, at its more arduous, certainly sustained a lengthy novel. But the earlier bulk of the story was carried by McEwan's living the private thoughts of his characters, so the reader enters their fields of consciousness. This is 'psychological realism', a term Briony, as mature novelist, herself uses. One wonders how much her theories of writing drama and novel are McEwan's own. One wonders how much the award-laden author feels the same way as his portrayal of the ageing Briony with her professional success and private self-reproach.

However, the story really has a message for us all. From childhood to old age, Briony has tried to live in an imaginary world which she can control to her satisfaction, to compensate for the real world in which she has only her conscience to tell her she has let others down.
Did that ring a bell with me? It certainly did.

When the thirteen year old girl writes a drama, she fails to direct it. She makes a drama of events at the country house, which she is too young to understand but not too young to start off a train of prejudices, from older members of her family, who should know better.

This is especially so, as Briony's elder sister vehemently rejects the accusation against Robbie, the young man, the son of a domestic servant, who had become a helped friend of the family. He is the working class hero of Auden's thirties, too clever for his own good, and effectively isolated amidst class enemies, when it is time to take sides.

The most touching part of the story is Cecilia's stand by Robbie, in his disgrace. She even disowns her family in its disgraceful prejudice, rather than let it ruin someone she knows to be of good character. Up till then, she had not been an attractive character. She seemed to be careless, directionless, lost in a haze of cigarette smoke. Her new-found determination redeems her and redeems Robbie.

Cecilia became a nurse and Briony followed her example during the war, in effect a penance.

McEwan's story eventually finds a way to ruin even Cecilia's saving grace, after war did its worst and Briony's illusionism is fully exposed.

Richard Lung.

To top of page.

Ian McEwan's Saturday.

This novel is obviously the work of a writer whose powers of observation and reflection are of the first rank. Likewise, his skill in organising his material, so that he says everything he wants to say without causing traffic pile-ups in the narrative. The reader doesnt have to face up to a literary version of the trials of a London commuter.

This is perhaps as well, since the story takes place in the span of a day's very special commute into London. This was the mass march of up to two million people into the capital to protest "Don't attack Iraq." At any rate, it was supposed to be the biggest mass demonstration in the country's history.

Like James Joyce's Ulysses, the novel sets out to make an epic of a single day. As in Ulysses, there is a march, tho it is a funeral march. McEwan's narrative is not Joyce's stream of consciousness. He is not really trying to follow the thoughts of his character, as they tumble out. The method is much more traditional and systematic. It would be better compared to a meticulous diary of the day's events carried to novel length.

That makes it more rather than less thoughtful, because the thoughts are organised. Ulysses and Saturday is the difference between tumbling out a jig-saw puzzle and one of those contests, in which an audience watches someone try to join the pieces within a time limit. The narrator fails, because life's complexity defeats him, especially within the novel's limit of an eventful day.

Actually, the London march stays firmly in the back-ground. I cannot imagine Dickens having been able to keep away from such a spectacle. But then McEwan doesnt sound a Cockney name! It seems unfair to keep mentioning Dickens in discussing other authors, an act that cannot be followed. Bernard Shaw's early appreciation of Dickens didnt prevent him from noticing the great man's short-comings.

Lack of formal education can be a blessing, as academic confinement breaks the appetite for life outside a class-room or office. Dickens obviously never suffered that. But he was thrown or had to throw himself into a literary living, starting off as a court and parliamentary reporter. There never was such a short-hand writer!

Life itself was Dickens' research. But McEwan's narrative character could never have been learned from pure observation. He had to consult with practising neuro-surgeons. A glossary of medical Latin would not have come amiss. At any event, the author lives his character, in a way this reader found convincing. Knowing the author is not this character, one is impressed how much work had to go into learning to comfortably take the part. Such an author is not like an actor carrying off a part he knows nothing about.

When the back-ground work comes off, it does make the novel more worth-while to read. There are too many novels that rely on the personalities of authors, who havent much to tell the reader that he doesnt know. And that doesnt usually suit an impatient reader like myself. In this novel, I felt the author's authority and respectfully followed the trail of print to the end.

Finally, the neuro-surgeon, having dazzled us with his expertise, admits modestly and honestly enough that we still dont know much about the brain itself, and characterises his profession as still at the level of plumbing, in that operations are largely about correcting more or less obvious damage or intrusion to the brain, rather than any real understanding, as yet. Nevertheless, he has faith in the progress science and greatly advancing technique is making. Nowadays, scientists can scan where the brain lights up for every task performed. The brain will soon be mapped in a way that was never possible before.

What comes out from the novel, whether intentionally or not, is the progress of medical science compared to the complete confusion of politics. Generally speaking, new sciences always are the subject of a lot of argument and disagreement, simply because not much is yet known about the subject in question. Mature sciences are more conspicuous by the amount of consensus has grown about the subject.

The doctor and his colleague and daughter go thru all the arguments for or against war with Iraq and come to a dead-lock. That is the classic sign of insufficient evidence, and so it proved in subsequent months to the time of this story, which is set on a real day in which real events were transmitted by the media and indeed outside the narrator's window.

Essential Arab opinion may not have been well represented by the Western media, but then it may not be well represented in their own countries. Memory plays one false but my impressions are that decisions in the United Nations towards Iraq seemed largely to leave out the Islamic world, but then it may not be united enough to make itself felt, as it certainly could, on the world stage. Maybe I'm wrong but it seemed what mainly counted was American government determination to topple an allegedly dangerous and undoubtedly Stalinist state, supported by the British government, on the one hand and, on the other hand, Europe, on this occasion, more in tune with anti-war public opinion, led by France and Germany, with Russia and China.

The topicality of the novel has already dated it, by-passed it. That may not be a disadvantage. It remains a genuine period piece that catches, at the time, people's feelings, which are liable to be revised with subsequent events. McEwan's Atonement, to my mind, has the comparitive disadvantage of trying to recreate a period and a life-style. It was rather too well worn a setting, and has also been vividly and inimitably done by contemporaries.

I must admit I have grumbled at the local readers' group at the lack of big political novels that touch national events and beyond, rather than stay in the family. But Saturday only really stands or falls as a family portrait. As others in the group said, this family belonged to a small elite. In London, not many people would have a whole town house to themselves. It would have been split into flats. In a way, the story is Jane Austen with a mass media back-ground that leaves McEwan's characters just as passive as in an eighteenth century rural back-water.

More-over, the essential drama of the novel is not historic but personal. You might be vaguely aware in an Austen novel that there is something called the Napoleonic wars going on in the back-ground, but the main conflict is supplied by unwanted suitors of the heroine. Likewise, in Saturday, the confrontation and pursuit by Baxter and co is the immediate reality.

The characters make no more difference to the politics of their day, tho they attempt to discuss them in a way both passionate and enlightened. We are back to the close character studies. Only the mother, in a nursing home, who has lost her mind, contrasts with the individual success stories of the other members of the family.

The father-in-law, the poet, is reminiscent of the sour grapes poem by Larkin about an imagined colleague in a chateau with booze and birds and a very undemanding work schedule! Indeed, Larkin's poetry is a favorite with this character, called Grammaticus. The poet is rather unsparingly analysed in his behavior patterns, programmed by rate of alcohol input and literary pre-occupations.

His influence on his grand-children shows-up the tremendous advantages that the professional classes' offspring can have by way of family help in finding and securing their futures.

In contrast to this fortunate family of achievers, is the Baxter character, with Huntington's disease, that the narrator falls foul of. The plot hinges on there being no cure but one perhaps turning up. Reality has out-paced fiction, because just the other day, medicine announced a treatment advance.
This almost tangible progress of science against the most intractible illnesses contrasts with the chronic reaction of politicians against progress, in the public interest from more power to the people, that might leave them out.
This novel is a symptom of public powerlessness, whether in private consciousness or mass action.

Richard Lung.
25 march 2006.

To home page.