Walking among the lonely crowd

Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, takes the temperature of Britain’s biggest-ever anti-war demo.

Stuart Simpson

Topics Books

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is set more than two years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, on the day of the UK’s biggest-ever anti-war demonstration. It is a novel about, among other things, how our private selves interact with the world of public events – how we in one moment live in a world that is immediate and concrete, and in the next in a world that is large and abstract.

We join the protagonist, Henry Perowne, in the early hours of Saturday morning – ‘it’s as if, standing there in the darkness, he’s materialised out of nothing, fully formed, unencumbered‘ – and follow him around London for the day. Perowne is a neurosurgeon, a self-proclaimed materialist. He isn’t quite a Martian parachuted in to give us a different perspective on our world, but he has no baggage and no political cause.

Staring out of the bedroom window of his central London townhouse, Perowne glimpses something in the sky. At first he sees a comet, circling the Sun millions of miles away. He brings the object closer to Earth when he decides it must be a meteor. Then realising it is a plane, engines on fire, his mind moves to the human scale – plastic forks handed out with airline food.

A similar transition occurs in the description of Perowne’s townhouse. While the plane passes behind the modern BT Tower, the square in which Perowne lives is much older, and shows signs of events that have helped shape the city. The facades of the houses, while in keeping with the original period in which the square was built, are a more recent addition – the old square was destroyed in the Blitz. At the same time as offering a view of the modern and of London’s history, Perowne’s house is also his family home, his private space.

Many novels have dealt with the relationship between the public and private worlds. What is intriguing about McEwan’s take is that there is really no backdrop of public action or public debate. Indeed, McEwan shows well just how much of a personal event the anti-war march was for the many thousands involved – little different from an argument between father and daughter, or the angry reading of opinion columns in the Sunday papers (the middle-class version of shouting at the telly). The march is even reduced to a comparison with a squash match.

Perowne is aware of the distance between public events and his personal life. He feels a certain possession of the news story about the plane, because he was one of the few people who saw it. But his connection with a public event isn’t about his connection with something public. Instead it is the reverse: this public event means something personal to him, and only him. His only solid connection to the world comes from experiences that ground him in the moment, such as sex, music, or operating on someone’s brain.

This disconnection from the public world doesn’t mean that Perowne is apathetic, or disengaged, but that his engagement is at a distance, and is merely personal. He cares and worries deeply about the impending war, and of what might follow. He also cares about the people of Iraq. He once treated an Iraqi who was tortured under Saddam’s regime, and so cannot bring himself wholly to oppose the war.

He is surprised when his daughter, Daisy, breaches the subject of Iraq since ‘it’s not one of her subjects’. Daisy argues that the war will only lead to suffering: ‘The dark outcomes she believes in are making her euphoric, she’s slaying a dragon with every stoke.’

It is unclear whether McEwan is deliberately showing how this personal and isolated life breeds the ‘dark fear’ depicted in the novel, but the link is there nonetheless. Perowne finds himself oscillating randomly between a fear of a hundred year war on terror, and the certainty that life goes on as normal.

This uncertainty also reveals itself in Perowne’s view of change. Brain surgery here becomes a metaphor for Perowne’s view of the public world – neurosurgeons know little of how the brain operates, they are just rather good plumbers. But Perowne has confidence that small steps in the advancements of knowledge will one day reveal the workings of the mind. Returning to a line chosen by Darwin to conclude the On the Origin of Species, Perowne sees that ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’.

Saturday is a novel about uncertainty and anxiety that seems to have no connection with events or ideas, the kind of anxiety that can be felt by someone as content and successful as Perowne. You can almost hear Perowne groan when contemplating that a recent study has shown that fish have a nervous system that can feel pain; he realises that it isn’t only the people of Iraq he has to worry about but the fish too.

But Perowne has the comfort of a happy family life, and no desire to act in the public world. His ‘grand’ vision of evolutionary change and fear of those who wish to bring about change see to that. McEwan seems to leave a question unresolved. What is it to engage in the public world if the thousands who took part in the UK’s largest public demonstration could have spent their time on a squash court with just as much effect? Or is it just that ‘small is beautiful’?

Either way, McEwan has written a novel that captures the anxiety of living under the shadow of the war on terror. This is more subtle than the fear of being blown up or gassed in some terrorist outrage, but is far more powerful.

Saturday by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).)

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