Pamela Bone has been a columnist with The Age newspaper in Melbourne for 23 years. She has twice won the Melbourne Press Club Quill Award for best columnist, and has also been awarded the United Nations of Australia Media Peace Prize. She has four adult daughters with whom she argues vigorously. Pamela is the author of Up We Grew: Stories of Australian Childhoods. Below, she reviews Ian McEwan's Saturday.
Pamela Bone on Saturday by Ian McEwan
'I am Henry Perowne,' I told my daughter, with whom I had many arguments in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq. And because she is a fan of Ian McEwan, Henry Perowne was able to persuade her of what I could not: that there were consequences to be had in not invading as well as in invading that tragic, blighted country.
Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan's extraordinary novel Saturday, has the same arguments with his daughter that I had with mine. He is ambivalent about the coming invasion. But he realizes that whatever happens, innocent people are going to die. The cost of removing Saddam was war. The cost of no war was leaving him in place. Thinking people made a judgement about what was likely to be the lesser evil. Despite the present mess, who was right and who was wrong is still unknown.
At one point in the book Perowne's daughter Daisy asks in horror: 'Daddy, you're not for the war, are you?' He replies: 'You're right, it could be a disaster. But it could be the end of a disaster and the beginning of something better. It's all about outcomes, and no one knows what they'll be. That's why I can't imagine marching in the streets.'
Saturday is not, in my opinion, McEwan's best book - I think his previous book, Atonement, was better - but it is a very good book. And here's something for a reviewer to consider (though perhaps it applies more to non-fiction than fiction): how to resist the temptation to find a book a 'good' book if you agree with its arguments, a 'bad' book if you disagree? Yet even apart from my identification with the thoughts of the main character, Saturday is the best book I have read this year. The principal reason for this, without being too obsequious about it, is that any book written by Ian McEwan is likely to be the best book I read in any one year. Since many years ago having read the brilliant, devastating The Child in Time (no parent of young children should read this book!), I have looked forward to every new McEwan novel.
Saturday is so named because the action takes place in London on a particular Saturday, 15 February 2003. Henry Perowne, on his way to his regular Saturday morning game of squash, is watching the crowds gathering to protest against the forthcoming Iraq war, as they did in cities across Europe, America, Australia. It is said to be the biggest protest march ever held in London - up to two million people, by some estimates.
Perowne, a neurosurgeon, is prosperous, untroubled, intelligent rather than intellectual; a man who is as decent as any person who has the things most necessary to human happiness - meaningful work, loving relationships, sufficient material comfort - should be. He is a deliberately anti-literary figure, who as well as arguing vociferously with Daisy (an emerging poet) about Iraq, also argues with her about the ability of literature to cast light on the human condition. It is because of this march that Perowne, encased in his beautiful car listening to Schubert and content with the prospect of his day, has the apparently small accident that will lead to the book's dramatic final chapters. The scene 'has an air of innocence and English dottiness'. Perowne is struck by the 'celebratory nature' of the crowds, people holding banners saying 'Not in my name', secure in the knowledge of their own goodness. He later wonders why, among those two million idealists, there seemed to be 'not one banner, one fist or voice raised against Saddam'.
Perowne has treated an Iraqi professor who was a victim of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers. He cannot feel, 'as the marchers probably can, that they have an exclusive hold on moral discernment'. He imagines himself as Saddam, 'surveying the crowd with satisfaction from some Baghdad ministry balcony', telling himself that 'the good-hearted electorates of the Western democracies will never allow their governments to attack his country'.
The imaginary Saddam was, of course, wrong. The peace marchers didn't stop the war. What they probably succeeded in doing was making sure the war lacked the legitimacy of being backed by the United Nations.
Yet, as Perowne reflects, opinion in support of or opposition to the war could also be accidental. In his own case it was having known the Iraqi professor, seen his torture scars and listened to his stories, and because of him, having taken the trouble to find out as much as he could about the regime running Iraq - as many of the marchers didn't. (In my case, it was having talked to Iraqi women exiles who told me of the atrocities of the regime, including Saddam's orders that prostitutes - who were in some cases not even prostitutes but critics of the government - should be beheaded and their heads nailed to the doors of their houses as a lesson to others. And by a strong and long-held outrage that murdering, genocidal dictators nearly always simply get away with it.)
On that drive across town Perowne sees three black figures, women in the body and face-covering burqas, huddled together on a pavement.
He can't help his distaste, it's visceral. How dismal, that anyone should be obliged to walk around so entirely obliterated... And what would the relativists say, the cheerful pessimists from Daisy's college? That it's sacred, traditional, a stand against the fripperies of Western consumerism? But the men, the husbands... wear suits, or trainers and tracksuits, or baggy shorts and Rolexes, and are entirely charming and worldly and thoroughly educated in both traditions. Would they care to carry the folkloric torch, and stumble about in the dark at midday?I have wondered this too, and why left-leaning women do not protest at such an oppression of women's rights (even if the women go along with their oppression). The reason, as Fay Weldon has said, is that today racism is seen as a much worse crime than sexism; and many people confuse criticism of religion - especially Islam - with racism. It has, of course, nothing to do with racism.
Saturday (Perowne may or may not reflect McEwan's own views) will not please many of McEwan's readers who, I am guessing, are likely to have been opposed to the invasion. For it is on the liberal, book-reading, intellectual, cultural-relativist left that opposition to the war was strongest. Here it was taken for granted that all good-thinking people would be anti-war.
The Irish writer John Banville, whose novel The Sea won this year's Booker Prize, made a graceless attack on Saturday in the New York Times, describing the Perowne character as boring and ridiculous and the book as a smug celebration of upper-middle-class values. From this we must conclude that Banville disagreed with the suggestion that there could have been a case for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Having read Banville's self-consciously well-written new novel, I am disappointed, though not surprised, that the Booker judges decided to give the prize to it.
Ian McEwan is a fine novelist not only for the effortless, lyrical quality of his writing and his mastery of detail, but because he is able to tease out complex ideas while keeping his readers' interests at heart, rather than setting out to demonstrate his own cleverness. And Saturday is a fine novel because at its centre is a good man: a privileged man, yes, but one who knows he is privileged, who is kind, who desires and believes in the possibility of the gradual and continued improvement of the human condition. It should have won the Booker; but then, the politics of the day were against it.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]