Saturday by Ian McEwan
|Saturday by Ian McEwan|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Magda Healey|
|Summary: The book is constructed on a very simple premise: let's put a model rationalist and privileged professional into a situation challenging morally and emotionally; and we'll see if he and his whole seemingly solid character structure survives or collapses. McEwan keeps us unsure until the end. And the resolution is very satisfactory. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: January 2006|
"If he was called to create a religion, he would make use of evolution".
Henry Perowne is firmly on the side of reason: a neurosurgeon by profession, an evolutionist by philosophy, coming clearly from the science side of the great divide. Perhaps more so than even a physicist would; as medicine today is a technology of the body and rarely allows for the quasi-mystical awe that physics or cosmology might inspire. He's not without his artistic side but that is definitely secondary, fully realised only in his children: a poet and a musician, representative of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of art. He reads, but he is impatient with literature and "it interests him less to have the world reinvented; he wants it explained". He's more sensitive to music and painting and admires Bach, Cézanne and Coltrane.
He loves his wife and has always been faithful to her. I was incredibly moved by the short, medical and poetic at the same time description of this day-to-day love, our fragile mammalian love: "This commonplace cycle of falling asleep and waking, in darkness, under private cover, with another creature, a pale soft tender mammal, putting faces together in a ritual of affection".
Henry's life is organised, rational, ordered; not dull by any means but he is - fundamentally - at peace. An exhilarating novelty, this is, to read a deeply moving and powerful psychological novel where the main character from whose point of view everything is narrated is not disturbed, torn and thrown about by emotional conflicts. At least at first, anyway. And even when the conflict comes, it - thankfully - doesn't stem from the unresolved adolescent angst or semi-remembered childhood traumas. It's the "outside", it's the world out-there that invades Henry Perowne's own universe one Saturday when he drives to a squash match through the deserted back streets of London which is preparing for the great peace march. It's during this drive that Perowne will have a violent encounter with a young man suffering a from congenital neurological condition, and who will eventually turn up at the Perowne's celebratory family gathering, with rather disturbing consequences.
Henry's response to this situation forms the climax of the novel. We have to consider his response in the light of his character (such an old fashion word, character; but definitely applicable here). Perowne is humane and has stirrings of social awareness. He believes in progress. His main gripe with the fashionable and cool writers from humanities is their lack of appreciation of the material which he cannot possibly share: "A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits and what it can sustain - consciousness. (but) It wouldn't be cool for a professional to count the eradication of smallpox as part of the modern condition".
The book is constructed on a very simple premise, really: let's put such a model rationalist and privileged professional into a situation challenging morally and emotionally; and we'll see if he and his whole seemingly solid character structure survives or collapses. McEwan keeps us unsure until the end. And the resolution is very satisfactory: or at least was so for me.
The prose is confident and strong, with many memorable sentences and wonderful, somehow detached clarity of the language but as you have probably gathered by now, to me 'Saturday' was clearly and foremostly a psychological portrait. McEwan is able to create striking characters (isn't it what, apart from media world's incestousness, got him the Booker for "Amsterdam"?) and in Henry Perowne he created a truly memorable one.
In many ways Perowne is an epitome of a comfortable and very complacent (if somehow deserved) privilege with just enough conscience, humanity and self awareness not to be repulsive. He is one of the rich and educated owners of the early 21st century. But on the other hand he is also carrying a rather serious banner: it would be difficult to find a figure that is a better representative of Enlightment, of all that is valuable in the last several hundred years of striving European culture, even if sadly aware that it's "not rationalism that will overcome the religious zealotry but ordinary shopping and all that entails". To me, despite this resignation, McEwan's novel is a sign of hope.
Another, and perhaps more disturbing McEwan's novel in which the scientific rationalism triumphs is Enduring Love.
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