Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
After reading the astounding Atonement, it is somewhat to be expected that Amsterdam would confirm, if not necessarily at the chef d’oeuvre level, the extraordinary talent of the author, Ian McEwan.
Amsterdam is a masterpiece and it deserved the Booker Prize awarded in 1998, for it is such a complex, if short, intriguing, gripping, political, musical, deep, sophisticated crime story that has a compelling narrative, modern and believable characters and the familiar theme of guilt, that creates a common bond with Atonement, in spite of the two novels being so very different.
Molly Lane is one of the protagonists of this book, albeit she is dead from the first or second sentence, creating a bond between the other three key personages, the classical music composer Clive Linley, his friend- up to the crucial, climax point- the editor of the Judge newspaper, Vernon Halliday, and finally, the British Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, the latter a favorite to become PM, like Boris Johnson.
Clive Linley has been commissioned to compose the Millennium Symphony, if possible creating a melodic phrase that would haunt audiences in the manner of Nessun Dorma, a feat that seems impossible under the present circumstances, following the death of Molly, a dear, former lover, so the creator decides to travel to the Lake District where he had been inspired before.
Once there, he takes a long walk in the middle of nature- even if perhaps a climb might be appropriate, at least for parts of the itinerary-is annoyed to see that he would have to share the path with hundreds of children who have the same intention and decides to change plans, when he feels the divine intervention and the muse is upon him.
At the same time, as he feels inspired to write the melody, the notes that have been so elusive and knows that they might be gone if he does not sit down to note them, there is a rather violent scene taking place nearby, between a woman and a man, who have some violent exchanges that attract the attention of the hero.
Clive decides that he needs to sit at this stone that is like a table and as he makes the effort to concentrate, only to be interrupted again and made to look over the cliff that is between him and the arguing man and woman and see the conflict aggravating, the rucksack of the woman thrown in a nearby water and sinking.
The composer has to stop three times and think that his work is important, this is the Millennium Symphony and the deadline had been postponed twice, the orchestra had been commissioned and the concert hall is waiting for him to deliver the music in a matter of days, so he has to continue with his work or risk losing the spark, the tune that was inspired by an eagle flying over.
Therefore, he does nothing related to the violent confrontation, even if he thought he might intervene, perhaps saving the woman from some negative consequences, but it would have been possible to go there to find that even the supposed victim would tell him to stay away and mind his own business.
Before all this, Clive has asked Vernon to agree to help his friend find a more decent exit from this life than their departed Molly, which was kept alive in the last period of her life in humiliating condition; unable to think and understand anything from what happened around her.
The two friends agree to help each other when circumstances require and the editor has some adventures of his own, following the moment when George – Molly’s last partner- gives the newspaperman some photographs that show the Foreign Secretary in some unexpected attitudes.
Julian Garmony is obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant, false, hypocritical, rude and appears to be a menace for the future of his country, if promoted to higher office, in a position to lead Great Britain to the edge, if not to disaster.
It appears to be a duty to prevent this man from harming the lives of so many people, no matter what the means are – “the purpose justifies the means” – but this issue is more complicated and it is the reason for the first serious fight between the two good friends- Clive and Vernon, where the former insists that what the despicable man does in his privacy of his bedroom is his own affair.
The composer would go even further later, when his own moral failure is highlighted, and say that it is like “taking a crap on Molly’s grave”, using the photographs she would never have allowed to be so abused to take on Garmony, when the editor himself had defended in the past the rights of transvestites.
Vernon is also right in attacking the lack of response in a situation with potentially tragic outcome, insisting on the fact that a serial rapist was abusing women in that area and therefore, as a witness, Clive has the duty to report and go to the police…when the two raise the conflict to the level of an outright calamitous clash, the editor threatens to call the police himself.
The two former friends feel so terrible about each other that they have become enemies, the composer writing a very aggressive card, talking about the ruthless use of intimate, private pictures of cross dressing and the immoral advantage and increase in circulation that would result from this abominable act.
The change in perspective at the newspaper, in the media and public is extraordinary and whereas some have opposed the publication of the Garmony material, even if it unmasks the hypocrisy of a public figure with the power to inflict damage to the country, others felt it is the only thing to do.
Amsterdam is a brilliant invitation to mediate on crucial themes like the importance of privacy versus the need to know what public figures do – take the Dominque Strauss Kahn case, wherein the man was in the privacy of his room when he attacked a maid- - morality, euthanasia and the possibility of committing murder using it as a cover, the prevalence of the act of creation over the need to help another human being, friendship and loyalty.