Monday, July 10, 2006

Atonement

Writers are omnipotent. They sit by the brook on sunny afternoons and create bubbles of lives that sway with the wind - every bubble an universe in itself, pregnant with lives twisted and tortured by a greater purpose and responsibility. The writer can then create lives, destroy them, lure the eve with a shining apple or destroy the bubble with a indistinguishable colored pixel. Period.

They could either sweep the rug of reason off your feet and take you to another space and time where their protagonist becomes the center of an ever expanding thriving universe (like how an unassuming ten year old from pivet drive realized his parents were the greatest wizards of all time). Such a premise easily lends itself to drama and larger than life characters (like the man who cannot be named). Or they could show you a seemingly insignificant card and make you a witness while a minor accident sways it and makes it fall. And just as it falls, it kisses another card and takes it along and soon they all fall, an entire castle of cards, kissed with death and a twist of fate. And when the whole castle is in shambles, you have no one to blame but a minor insignificant accident - a woodworm that ate the cross. And a satisfied writer who orchestrated it all.

On a midsummer morning, 13-year-old Briony Tallis watches, from a hidden window, her sister take off her clothes before her father's ward and jump into a fountain. An admittedly unusual incident (aggressive foreplay if it were in a hollywood movie) but not an event that by itself could entwine three lives, destroy them beyond belief and dismember a family. But by the time you are through with Part one of Atonement [Atonement : A Novel - by Ian McEwan], you realize that the lives of those caught in that decisive moment have been irrevocably altered and each of their picture perfect plans for future irrepairably destroyed.

The first part of the novel is a master piece. It paints an upper middle class setting in the early part of twentieth century, overlays it with an entire family of interesting characters. Briony Tallis is looking forward for her brother Leon to return and writes a play as a welcome act, that she plans to stage with the help of her cousins. Her sister Cecilia is spending time at home after her years in Oxford and living with them is Robbie turner, who's on his way to study medicine, after an exceptional year of academics. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one character and hence events are revisited and shown in the different perspective. And it's eventually this difference in perspective - subjectivity of realism - that causes the seemingly insignificant card to sway and fall and take with it the entire castle.

The story could have ended there. But the laws of cause and effect wouldn't have been complete. The unlucky wouldn't have been victimised and erring soul wouldn't have repented. The rest of the book binds the ends and records the atonement of the protagonist. Though the text is exquisite, the imagery detailed, these introspective parts fail to capture the magic of the first act. More so because they do little to advance the story - time goes by slowly as the characters trudge through the walk of life reconciling themselves with here and now and try in their own little ways to mend it. But like the author himself writes, "The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself ... it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception .... However, such writing can become precious when there's no sense of forward movement ... underlying pull of simple narrative".

In the end, time flies. Lives end and plot twists are resolved. The thirteen year old girl reaches the autumn of her life and waits for the witnesses in her prosecution to fade so that she could finally atone for her sin. In a master stroke in the end, the line between the reality as in the book, and those recorded as a work of fiction by the Briorny is forever blurred. And when the final page is flipped, she stares out at the autumn sky and reconciles with herself and her written word.

Atonement is no doubt a work of class. And as with anything with class, it runs the risk of being compared with itself than with its contemporaries. I would have loved to like Atonement a little more. You know that when the last word is said, you don't feel the emptiness that only art could leave you with but in its place a sigh, a shadow of what it could have been. A master piece.

11 Comments:

Blogger Meera said...

You are a terrific writer yourself - clean, precise, logical.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Rathish said...

Coming from you (and I am not saying this trivially), it's quite a compliment. Thank you :)

5:57 PM  
Blogger avadakedavra said...

Wonder if youve watched the movie Pulp fiction!!

10:18 AM  
Blogger Rathish said...

well yeah, a dozen times I guess :)

Probably the difference is that you don't expect Pulp fiction to go anywhere but you expect atonement to :)

11:14 AM  
Blogger avadakedavra said...

with too much of praises floating around, I should probably read Atonement

7:52 PM  
Blogger tangled said...

atonement and the grapes of wrath! :D coincidence makes my world go 'round...

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In almost in every writings you use word "bubble". Rathish why is it so? Wots special about it?

4:42 PM  
Blogger Rathish said...

@avadakedavra - you should probably read only the first part :-)

@tharunya - Haven't started grapes of wrath yet. One of those books that's been beside my bed for over two months now! You should tell me how you liked atonement

@anonymous - you are right! it's become a muse that I picked up from someone I know. I use it very often even when I speak. It's a beautiful thought - to see yourself and your life inside a bubble swaying in the wind. Guess, I should resist that imagery, lest it should start sounding cliched!

8:15 AM  
Blogger avadakedavra said...

Quo Vadis? Whenz the next one coming out?

9:10 AM  
Blogger Praveen said...

Great review Rathis, makes me wanna read the book soon.

The first two paragraphs of this piece is brilliant! Very well written!

12:43 PM  
Blogger ente swapname said...

My dear Guru, wot special in "BUBBLE". use have used this word in most of writings. Y dear?

2:50 PM  

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