Ian McEwan’s AMSTERDAM- A Dull Choice for the Booker

A dead woman :

Vivacious, middle-aged, restaurant critic , gorgeous wit, photographer, a daring gardener, someone capable of performing perfect cartwheel at forty-six.

Cause of death – cancer.

Leaves behind – a  husband, and at least three  lovers, all of whom attend her funeral ; and some remarkably candid artistic pictures of one of these lovers, aesthetically shot by her.

The funeral provides a glimpse into the personalities of these dramatis personae; casual bits of conversations between them aid in further developing their characters.

The novel meditates upon the sudden onslaught of a life-threatening disease , which does not leave one with a chance to embrace death with dignity . “Once sent for tests and never returned”, is a common fear that grips us. In India , we fear hospitals and doctors, almost as much we fear disease itself. Ask any elderly about this abiding fear!

Molly’s husband, George Lane was a morose, possessive man, too full of himself. He began vetting her friends when she became very sick, and was confined , although he did care for her with his own hands.  “Her death had raised him from general contempt. He appeared to have grown an inch or two, his back had straightened , his voice had deepened, a new dignity had narrowed his pleading, greedy eyes.” It was under his care that the cow that grazed many pastures had passed. He had not been passed over for anybody. As the sole inheritor to her estate, it was George who came into possession of the photographs in question. George also held one and a half percentage of The Judge, and became the arbiter of its fate.

Three lovers of Molly Lane who got entangled in further action were– Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, Editor of The Judge Vernon Halliday , and reknowned Music Composer  Clive Linney. Molly did not choose pedestrians for lovers , one reason why her choice of  husband, just a boring investor, was not a popular one.

Julian Garmony had carved a life for himself in ‘political marketplace with an unexceptional stall of xenophobic and punitive opinions’. It was rumoured he was pushing the PM for the top job. He was an ultra-Right leader who stood for tougher immigration laws, sneered at climate change-related controls on the industry and wanted to take Britain out of the EU. Clive Linney found his ‘eye movements , the restless patrol for new listeners or defectors, or the proximity of some figure of higher status, or some other main chance that might slip by’ very disgustingly politician-like.

High office had eroded Julian’s ability to talk levelly with his fellowmen. ‘It is the freedom of artists like yourself to pursue your work that makes my own job worthwhile,’ he boasted, as if liberty was his personal gift to Linney. ‘To air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilized existence,’ as if friendship was a favour bestowed upon the composer. It was Garmony, who had dressed-up as a transvestite in the pictures which Molly had shot, and which George Lane wanted Vernon to publish in The Judge. “Garmony must be stopped, the country and The Judge must be saved….”

Clive Linney, the Composer, had delusions of greatness and was under pressure to deliver the final notes of his musical piece , which was soon to be performed in Amsterdam. He was in search of his magnum opus, a symphony that would cement his legacy. But Molly’s tragic death had led him to contemplate his own mortality. He was worried sick about going the same way downhill as Molly did. To this end, Clive and his good friend , Vernon, entered into a mutual euthanasia pact. The two friends shared liberal values and hatred for Garmony’s politics, as well as taste for good life. It was only quite later that Clive realized the one-sided nature of their friendship, and Vernon’s lack of principle.

Vernon Halliday was the Editor of The Judge, that faced existential crisis because of falling circulation. The rushed nature of his job, flashing images which passed by in life-like images on screen ,  pressure to save the paper , Molly’s untimely death ,  Linney’s resultant panic ,George’s offer to sell him Garmony’s photographs, and resistance by the staff  –  all this was too much for ‘a man without edges, without faults or virtues, as a man who did not fully exist. In his profession, he was revered as a non-entity .’  McEwan’s prose flows further  – ‘The grammarians would stand or fall by its intellectual probity. Together they would see the paper into the grave with its syntax pure.’ The best story Vernon had broken in his entire career had been ‘pategate’ -radical hair implant done by a German minister at taxpayers’  expense ! Such a puny man then held the future (and possibly , life ) of the Foreign Secretary  and Britain  in his hands, not to mention the power and responsibility that came along with the mutual euthanasia pact with Clive Linney .

The moral vacuum at the core of the novel is quite de-humanizing. Clive gets musically inspired while watching a rape and does not bother to stop, or even report it. ‘The melody could not have survived the psychic flurry.’ Vernon uses this information to get even with Clive , not for the cause of justice. Vernon projected himself as a supporter of LGBTQ rights, but hypocritically exposes Garmony’s photographs to save his position at the paper.

The most clear and noteworthy thought that the author espouses in this novel with a contrived plot and bizarre climax, is what Linney tells Vernon in defense of Garmony and to dissuade the Editor from publishing the pictures- “If its okay to be a transvestite, then it is okay for a racist or a family man to be one.”  Clive also impresses upon Vernon how publishing the pictures would be a betrayal of Molly, as well as of Vernon’s own liberal beliefs. The pictures are nevertheless published. Garmony and the country handle the crisis with grace and maturity. It is Vernon who gets destroyed in the bargain , as also his friendship with Clive Linney.

Despite elegant prose and contemporary relevance, Amsterdam is one of Ian McEwan’s less accomplished works. His main characters do not come across as very convincing , and hardly any secondary characters are introduced. By the first third of the novel gets over, the plot is fully revealed, and the main characters completely developed. The briefness of the novel does not help. The brevity leaves behind a feeling of incompleteness. Seldom do I wish any author had written more than he has. Amsterdam is one such novel which McEwan perhaps wound too abruptly.

Amsterdam seems undeserving of the Booker it managed to win in 1998, considering that it is not even among McEwan’s three best works. But the trademark McEwan prose is a solace, if one wants to consume this 208 page offering.

#ianmcewan #amsterdam #bookerprize #booker #englishnovel #brevity #goodreads

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