I once was an Ian McEwan fan. His most famous novel, Atonement, speaks of our deep need for forgiveness. It’s the story of a woman who, as a child, committed a selfish and spiteful act of deception which set in motion a devastating chain of events that severed family ties and destroyed the lives of people she cared about. Most unsettling is the way the story takes place in a world where her sin cannot be atoned for and the protagonist is left to reconcile her misdeeds by creating an alternative history of events, in which the adversity and trauma caused by her own actions is not fatal. A happy ending is engineered, but in the final pages we are left to swallow the bitter pill of an unforgiving universe where some sins can never be forgiven.
After Atonement, I read other McEwan novels, and was always taken by both his prose and his storytelling. I was particularly moved by the haunting and simple Saturday, an account of a single harrowing day in the life of a family in post-Sept. 11 London. But eventually, I grew weary with McEwan’s work gifted though he is. His view of the world seemed too bleak, the weight of the darkness too heavy.
I would venture that this worldview grows out of his own belief about the role of religion in public life. Painting with a broad brush, he has been quoted as saying “Faith is at best morally neutral, and at worst a vile mental distortion. Our habits are to respect people of faith, but I think we’ve been forced to question those habits. The powers of sweet reason look a lot more attractive post-9/11 than the beckonings of faith, and I no longer put them on equal scales.” My disagreements with these sweeping conclusions are too numerous to mention in this writing, but they do help explain his gloomy view of the world.
But I was intrigued by his reaction to being awarded a prestigious prize at the annual Jerusalem International Book Fair. It’s fashionable in contemporary Britain, and in much of Europe, amongst left-wing academics and artists to identify with the Palestinian cause in a way that is very one-sided. Boycotts are encouraged and visits to Israel are frowned upon. McEwan came under pressure to refuse a trip to Israel to receive the award, but he chose another path.
In defending his decision to receive the honor in Jerusalem, he argued for engagement with those with whom you disagree. And he most caught my attention when he observed, "I don't think Israel can prosper unless Palestine prospers." An astute observation, and one that is equally true in the converse. Israel cannot prosper until Palestine prospers, and Palestine cannot prosper until Israel prospers. This is a truth many would rather avoid. But a solution to the long-running conflict can only be found in acknowledging both sides nationalistic claims and the deep and historic connections all three Abrahamic faith communities have to a place they each deem holy. It further requires recognizing the legitimate needs of both Palestinians and Israelis to attain at least proximate justice, to live in peace and security, and to have their inherent dignity respected by the other.
The novelist is at his best when he circumvents the ideological and other debris that clutter our hearts and minds and reveals to us a truth about ourselves and the world we live in. McEwan endeavors to do this with his work, and he writes thoughtfully of the human experience, though in the end his readers are often left with a profound sense of meaningless and despair. But in recognizing the interconnectedness of Israelis and Palestinians, he glimpses a vision of a more flourishing world built on mutuality, and in this he reveals to us an important truth.