No atonement necessary

Jerusalem Prize-winner Ian McEwan talks about boycotts in Israel, unrest in Libya and multiculturalism in Britain.

Ian McEwan 311 (photo credit: Annalena McAfee)
Ian McEwan 311
(photo credit: Annalena McAfee)
The morning after Ian McEwan received the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of Society at the opening event of the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair this week, he was a little perplexed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to such a charged event. As I think I said last night, this is a peculiarly intense society you have in Israel,” said the 62-year-old English novelist and screenwriter, who in 2008 was named by The Times as one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945.”
He was referring, in part, to a first in a literary career spanning more than 30 years and 11 novels – getting booed by a lone dissenter during his speech after accepting the prize when he criticized both the shooting of rockets from Gaza by Hamas and continued Jewish building in east Jerusalem and the settlements. But he wasn’t offended by the outburst, although the protester and others in the crowd felt their own sense of indignity by McEwan’s equating the two actions. Instead, he was engrossed by the passion involved in virtually every encounter he’s had during his week-long stay here.
“I’d been warned a bit, and I sort of suspected the reaction, but it’s quite different when you’re actually in the middle of it. I’ve been party to many different conversations in the three or four days I’ve been here, and the speed in which the ‘situation’ becomes the topic, even when you’ve hardly met the person, is astonishing. And as I said in my speech, there’s no small talk, only ‘dugri’ [straight talk], a very useful Arabic word which I’m taking home with me. I live in a nation of small talk and I’m going to miss this,” said McEwan during an early morning talk in a corner lounge in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim guest house in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood which served as his scenic headquarters during his visit.
Tastefully disheveled in a casual sport coat and mussed-up hair, while attempting to sneak in a cup of coffee and croissant at the start of another whirlwind day, McEwan fit the bill of the erudite, thoughtful, liberal writer to a T. His political allegiance, if there was any doubt before his visit, became crystal clear when he joined his Israeli colleague David Grossman last Friday at the weekly demonstration in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
“If David hadn’t invited me, I’d have invited myself. Those people represent a conscience that’s very important,” he said of the participants who have been gathering since November 2009 in response to three Arab families who were evicted from their homes to make way for Jewish families who claimed ownership of the property.
“They accept that they haven’t actually changed anything, but I think they represent for some of the older people there the Israel of maybe 30 years ago that was maybe more communitarian and somewhat more sensitive to the impact they’re making on other people’s lives, on Palestinian lives.
“But they are a very small group. The experience left kind of a sour sweet taste, with hope and energy being expressed by the kids beating the drums but also the sense of trying to turn back an insurmountable tide.”
At the same time, McEwan is the first to acknowledge that the reason the protests take place at all is due to Israel’s open society and freedom of speech – cornerstones that convinced him to accept the prize in the face of pressure from pro-Palestinian groups to decline it and boycott the country.
A letter by British Writers in Support of Palestine to The Guardian stated that acceptance of the award was evidence of “an unprincipled approach” and would “make him a collab-orator with Israel’s worst human rights offenders.”
McEwan rejected the charges and, after spending time here, urged other artists who face similar pressure not to take the easy way out and bow out of invitations to visit.
“I would tell them to come here and speak freely, because this is a place where people do speak freely. Whatever else one might say about Israel, it is a place where ideas are contested very, very powerfully,” he said.
“I know there are arguments, even made by Israelis, for a boycott. But some boycotters feel that by doing absolutely nothing and staying away, they’re doing something. I think that’s quite easy and nice for your conscience. The harder thing is to come here and speak your mind – I say do the harder thing.”
McEWAN HAS taken the hard route on the way to the Jerusalem Prize, the country’s most distinguished literary award, granted biennially to an author whose work “reflects and promotes the freedom of the individual in society.”
Previous laureates include Bertrand Russell, J.M. Coetzee, Mario Vargas Llosa and Haruki Murakami, with four former laureates subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Instead of catering to commercial tastes, McEwan has spent his career conducting insightful investigations into human nature – as he called novels in his Sunday night acceptance speech – that were “born out of curiosity about and respect for the individual and a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others.”
They’ve struck a chord among readers worldwide, making best-sellers of such acclaimed works as 1998 Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam and 2010’s Solar. Other works, including 1981’s The Comfort of Strangers, 1990’s The Innocent and 2001’s Atonement, have been made into films, the latter starring Keira Knightley. Unlike some authors, McEwan has made it a point to get involved in the film adaptations so he won’t have to cringe when he sees it on the screen.
“I try to take an executive producer role – but once these things get going, you don’t have very much influence. It isn’t practical for the person who sold the rights to come on set and tell the actors what they should be doing.
And anyway, directors are tyrants,” he said, displaying some of the dry humor that has been a trademark of his written work.
“The next movie is going to be [2007’s] On Chesil Beach, which I’ve just done script for. It looked like Sam Mendes would direct it, but now he’s just signed on to do the next James Bond movie, so we’re looking around for a director now.”
He expressed special affection for one of his first film adaptations, 1993’s Cement Garden, directed by Andrew Birkin and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg.
“It had a very low budget, but I’m bound to like it because it was so faithful to the book,” he said. “There was also much in Atonement that I really liked as well. I thought it was cast brilliantly, I never would have dreamt about Keira Knightly in that role, but she gave an excellent performance as a brittle, upper-class girl.”
McEwan’s ability to dig inside a character to create someone three-dimensional may have something to do with his upbringing, moving around the world according to his father’s postings as a Scottish army officer which brought his family to exotic locations like Singapore and Libya.
“I suppose it always has the effect of making your own culture and your own private identity not affixed as an obvious thing but as a contingent thing,” said McEwan. “So in that sense, it puts your selfhood and identity up for question – and that does affect one’s sensitivity to not only your own identity but those around you that you try to describe.”
Receiving an English literature degree from the University of Sussex in 1970, McEwan never really thought about doing anything with his life other than writing.
“I was pretty lucky – I belonged to that ’60s generation that thought it was a duty to stay out of a job,” he laughed. “I did do some teaching English as a foreign language for a year or so, but very soon after, I started to do journalism, writing for magazines and literary reviews and getting by that way. It was very cheap to live in the ’70s before hyperinflation kicked in.”
By 1975, his first collection of short stories – First Love, Last Rites – was published, and his future was set. And what if it hadn’t worked out? “I’d be the lead guitarist in a very secondrate Frank Zappa tribute band – not a first-rate one because I’d be lead guitarist.”
HOLDING A copy of that day’s Jerusalem Post, McEwan turned somber, pointing to the main headline about the unrest in Libya, and recalling with fondness the years he spent there as a child in the 1960s in the pre-Gaddafi era.
“Libya was an extremely poor country, and the three occupiers were the Italians, the British and the Americans, so it was a four-tier society, but we didn’t do a lot of mixing” he said.
“But my parents were quite eccentric.
Whereas the other officers and soldiers used to shop in a British store, we always used to go to the shouk in Tripoli. And that was thrilling – it was a very ancient traditional shouk, with flies everywhere, amazing cloths. So I did get some sense of the country, and I was imprinted for life with a love of flora and that combination of limestone and olive trees and heat and dust.
And I learned to love Arabic music.”
McEwan never returned to the country when his family went back to England when he was 12, and he retains nothing but animosity – exacerbated since the recent unrest – for the country’s brutal ruler.
“I really hope they topple Gaddafi, I feel profound contempt for his idiosyncratic, selfregarding autocratic style of government,” he said.
“He might make jokes about himself, but now we see there are actual machine guns being turned on demonstrators. He’s a ruthless, despicable man prepared to machine-gun his own people. I hope they string him from a lamppost.”
McEwan’s hard-line approach to Middle East dictators is tempered by his views on events in his own country and the controversial speech given by Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month when he launched a devastating attack on 30 years of multiculturalism in Britain, warning it is fostering extremist ideology and directly contributing to home-grown Islamic terrorism.
McEwan chose his words carefully, trying to walk a tightrope between his liberal beliefs and the facts on the ground.
“I live right in the heart of London, and I can say with real conviction I don’t think we are fundamentally a racist country. On the whole, if you go into the pubs and cafes where I live, people are mixing very well,” he said.
“I think we’ve been, relative to other countries, pretty welcoming to immigrants, with some terrible exceptions. We’ve lived through a time of unprecedented changes, where whole towns have changed their neighborhoods and churches have become mosques.
But I don’t think it’s too much to ask of people who have been here at least for a second generation to speak the language.
“And I do think that there is an obligation from those who come live among us to live by standards – Cameron and other politicians have a habit to say ‘the British way of life’ but we’re not talking anything particularly British.
We’re talking of something common to many First World countries, which is toleration and dissent – meaning if someone says something you disagree with, your first move is not to threaten to kill him.”
McEwan has some experience with lack of tolerance and threats, deriving from statements he made in 2008 against extremists within Islam who preach violent jihad. His words were taken out of context by a reporter and published as a blanket condemnation of Islam, forcing McEwan to issue a clarification on his website and blog. Recalling the period, he admitted that he was fearful that he’d become the target of a fatwa like Salman Rushdie experienced in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses.
“Yes, I was fearful. All I said was the absolute minimum, which is violent jihad is morally questionable. Unless you’re a violent jihadi, I don’t see how you can disagree with that,” he said.
“But we have the kind of press that likes to see you stabbed in the streets so they can run a story of outrage in your defense. But first they have to get you stabbed. So the first step is to replace the word ‘violent jihadis’ with ‘Islam.’” McEwan managed to smooth over the situation but since has not shied away from joining human rights causes like supporting the campaign to release Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning last year after being convicted of adultery or, as we saw last week, appearing in solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah protesters.
Asked whether he’d be ready to tackle an aspect of the Israeli-Arab conflict in a future novel, McEwan said that he wouldn’t discount the idea, and was planning on meeting Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Arab writer who’s looked at the complex relationship through the a comedic lens on the popular Channel 2 TV show Avoda Aravit (Arab Labor).
“I don’t know, perhaps it’s too dark and serious for me to write about it in a funny way. I’d have to know a great deal more about it, that’s for sure.”
With that, he began another day of learning just that.