Saturday: Comfort read for the media weary.

Read Ian McEwan’s Saturday a few days ago, and found it is sublime. While I’ve read Atonement & Amsterdam, I wouldn’t call myself an avowed fan of McEwan’s. That might just change after ‘Saturday’. Saturday is a day in the life of Henry Perowne. Perowne is someone we all dream of becoming, someone we’d be lucky to be at 50. Successful career. Reasonably good health. A wife of many years, whom he still loves, and who still loves him. Two children any parent would be proud of.

The novel is immensely enjoyable for two reasons – Perowne’s sharp observations on life that make you repeatedly think, “I know just what you mean!” And the fact that the book is contemporary in a way that doesn’t in the least bit feel contrived. Afghanistan, Iraq, 9-11, Africa, Saddam, Bush, Blair, Hans Blix, the theory of evolution, Islam – they’re all part of the props, and seem to belong there.

I resisted reading this novel because I felt vaguely resentful of the intrusion of these subjects into fiction. My thinking was that at least some places should remain sacred and aloof from the messiness of every day life. Anyone who’s been around for the last five years has read hundreds of op-ed columns, or watched any number of news clips, documentaries, etc. on these issues and will continue to read and watch hundreds more. Why must we endure more of the same in fiction, too? I also found it a little sad. Had non-fiction and our growing obsession with it put fiction on the defensive, turning the very genre into yet another wannabe-newsroom pundit, delivering its own verdict on how life has changed? Or how one must now proceed to deal with this “changed life”?

I am so very glad to report I was wrong. In a way, Saturday does do all of the offensive things I feared it would (dwell upon current events, show us how people deal with them), but does so in a completely disarming and therefore very likeable manner. Perowne tries to grapple with the problem of Iraq, as almost every one must have. He tries to gauge his stands on broader issues that impinge upon his own life only peripherally, if at all.

I wonder if men have always done this. Did your parents have endless discussions on the Indo-Pak war or your grandparents on the Second World War? It must have been hard not to, as these would have impacted every day life much more than the current “global struggle against violent extremism” does. Sure, we have to go to the airport an hour earlier than we used to, and can’t carry nail-clippers in our hand-baggage any more. Sure, color coded terror alters have become a part of our vocabulary. While I admit I’m hardly a representative sample, personally, I haven’t had my food rationed. Or had to turn off lights in response to air raid alerts. Or been drafted to the army.

What I’ve done instead is read or watch the news. Debated with friends about the news. Actually discussed would be a better term, as we mostly appear agree with each other, at least on this topic. The least enjoyable experience has been having to revise my opinions about how much I trust the news itself. I don’t know if this is part of growing up, when one day you wake up and realize that even The Hindu exists in order to make a profit, as does the New York Times, and as do any number of other institutions you believed were sacred and far above the cheap motives of making a buck.

There was a point to that digression – it was such a great relief to simply peek into someone else’s opinions, sans judgment. When am reading about Henry’s sense of ambiguousness over the war on terror, I simply get to satisfy my curiosity over what another person feels like. I am not simultaneously calculating how many pinches of salt I’ll need to take with this opinion or attempting to divine whether the source of these opinions is from the left or the right of an imaginary political fence, up for re-election, or has a major merger deal awaiting regulatory approval. Fiction beats all the expert commentary, well-researched or otherwise by being, well, fictitious.

Would reading Hemingway or Maugham hot off the presses have felt the same way? Possibly. I’ll never know. What I do know that Saturday felt like a breath of fresh air. And reading McEwan in the middle of a particularly taxing work-week (aren’t they all?) made the experience that much more wonderful.

Bottom-line: Read Saturday. Read it now, before the world changes once again.


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