Monday, February 26, 2007

much better

Ian McEwan's 'The Innocent' is an atonement for Atonement as far as I am concerned.

Berlin 1956. Ten - eleven - years after the end of the war. The cold war is beginning to extend its icy grip all over Europe. An English post office employee, Leonard Marnham comes to the American sector in Berlin as a small - a very small - cog in a large espionage wheel.

After a slow start, The Innocent held my attention tight, to the very end. As tight as Otto squeezing Leonard Marnham's balls.

The descriptions of the couple in love - English Leonard and German Maria - brought back some yearning, though I like to think myself past that stage - I am not really. Everyone wants to walk hand in hand through some beautiful city in Spring. So do I, even now. Which makes me realise, when is a book best enjoyed? When it brings back some sparks from the past, some vague longings you never knew you had, some fleeting feelings you recognise....

McEwan is devious in the way he unfolds the plot. By the time Leonard decides to turn informer for reasons quite unconnected to patriotism, you'll be left shaking your head at it all.

And yes the epilogue. As I've mentioned earlier in this blog, I'm no longer the patient reader I was. I like my stories tied up neatly for me, thank you very much, John Irving. I don't have the energy to interpret an author's nebulous conclusions.

Yes. Much better, indeed.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A very long engagement

I have many reasons to thank Logging on to this website is a process I go through religiously two or three times a week. The book and film reviews especially have me salivating. Salon gives me the double pleasure of good criticism set forth in good writing. It’s true I don’t always agree with their opinions. I love Anne Tyler (that’s another post) though Salon doesn’t always; BBC’s Pride & Prejudice is still the definitive adaptation in my book, whatever Stephanie Zacharek may say. But on most counts I would trust Salon to help me on what to read and what to see.

Where I’m leading, in my longwinded way, is that the last time I was at the library, typewritten list of books in hand (a mix of booker prize winners, nominees and Salon recommends), a title, ‘A very long engagement’ caught my attention. I knew I’d heard it somewhere – in fact I was sure I had read a review of its movie in Salon.

A very long engagement, by Sebastien Japrisot, turned out to be, with ‘Prep’ and ‘Possession’ the best book I had read in recent times. Set in France during and in the aftermath of World War I, it tells the story of five soldiers who shoot themselves in the hand to avoid combat, are courtmartialled and left to die in a snowy trench on the frontlines. Chiefly to be an example to anyone showing such traitorous impulses. It’s impossible any of the five may have survived, yet possible they may have, as well.

But this is just the background. The actual story is about Mathilde, the fiancée of the youngest of these men, who takes up the search after the war is over. She reminds me quite strongly of Smilla from another of my favourite books – Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow. Mathilde is wheelchair bound, (not in the movie version, Salon tells me), so there are no Da Vinci code kind of ‘adventuring’ scenes. Most of the action is internal – or more accurately, cerebral. Several times it seems as though Japrisot is setting up Mathilde – and us – for a huge disappointment. And the ending, well, it’s not what you’d expect.

One thing that struck me throughout the book was Mathilde’s unquestioning love for Manech, her missing fiancée. Is it humanly possible to be that constant? Manech is no lost war hero, he is a deserter. A man, one might say, not worth loving. And it is also evident that by the time he shot himself, he was already driven out of his wits, by the atrocities of the war. But the constancy of Mathilde’s affections are never in doubt. And as you peep into her memories – mere suggestions – you can see why. One gets the distinct feeling that Japrisot does see the five men as heroes – for their revulsion to war.

I did go back to Salon to try and trace the review – I was right, there is a film version, starring Audrey Tatou as Mathilde. And did Salon like? Salon did.