This is, as we will soon discover, the section with the Iraqi torture victim. But first, a word about description.
As a teenager, I spent far too much time on (the late, lamented) Anti-shur’tugal, a website devoted to picking apart all the various ways in which Eragon and sequels were awful, awful books. (I read the first one once. I got bored.) Anyway, one of the foremost complaints about Eragon was that it had a lot of description. Very long, very purple, and very pointless description. Saturday doesn’t have anything near as bad as…
A burning-green sward splayed around the pillared mass of Celbedeil, like a mantle dropped over the symmetrical hill that upheld the temple. Ivy strangled the building’s ancient walls in foot after foot of hairy ropes, dew still glittering on the pointed leaves. And curving above all but the mountains was the great white cupola ribbed with chiseled gold.*
*Eldest, pp. 112-3, according to…
…thank heavens, but when I’m subjected to stuff like this:
The blue shorts are bleached by patches of sweat that won’t wash out. Over a grey T-shirt he puts on an old cashmere jumper with moth-holes across the chest. Over the shorts, a tracksuit bottom, fastened with chandler’s cord at the waist. The white socks of prickly stretch towelling with yellow and pink bands at the top have something of the nursery about them. Unboxing them releases a homely aroma of the laundry. The squash shoes have a sharp smell, blending the synthetic with the animal, that reminds him of the court, the clean white and red lines, the unarguable rules of gladiatorial combat, and the score. (p. 57)
…I can’t help but have horrible flashbacks. All this specificity is suffocating. Does McEwan not trust us to fill in all these little details on our own? Does McEwan not understand that his readers aren’t two and he doesn’t need to hold our hands? More importantly, what does McEwan think we stand to gain from all this description? I don’t need to know about the sweat stains on his shorts. I don’t need to know about the chandler’s cord. I don’t need to know all these intimate little details about the good doctor’s socks. I want to see him wipe the floor with Mighty Whitey at squash.
You, on the other hand, probably want to hear about the Iraqi ex-prisoner, the man responsible for Perowne’s “ambivalent or confused and shifting ideas about this coming invasion.” (p. 60-61) We’ll get to that in a moment, but right now, let’s take a moment to celebrate, because this:
Gower Street a few blocks away to the east is one of the starting points of the march, and some of the overspill has reached back here. A small crowd around the cart wants to buy stuff before the vendors are ready. The general cheerfulness Perowne finds baffling. […] Behind the throng around the cart is a bunch of kids in leather jackets and cropped hair, looking on with tolerant smiles. They have already unfurled their banner which proclaims simply, Peace Not Slogans!! (p. 60)
…is our first glimpse of the historic protest happening on this delightful Saturday. Never mind that in the very next sentence he derides the protesters as adorably scatterbrained, we finally get to see the protest! Huzzah! Let us rejoice! Eat, drink, and be merry, for in the next next sentence we’re plunged back into the bourgeois liberal morass!
Perowne, dressed for combat on court, imagines himself as Saddam, surveying the crowd with satisfaction from some Baghdad ministry balcony: the good-hearted electorates of the Western democracies will never allow their governments to attack his country. But he’s wrong. (p. 60)
Did I just read that? Did Perowne just imply that the marchers are enabling Saddam?
Let’s move on before I go into rant mode.
The one thing Perowne thinks he knows about this war is that it’s going to happen. With or without the UN. The troops are in place, they’ll have to fight. (p. 60)
Ian McEwan, January 2003:
At present, following the Blix and Powell reports to the UN Security Council, a war looks inevitable. One can only hope now for the best outcome: that the regime, like all dictatorships, rootless in the affections of its people, will crumble like a rotten tooth: that the federal, democratic Iraq that the INC committed itself to at its conference can be helped into existence by the UN, and that the US, in the flush of victory, will find in its olman’s heart the energy and optimism to begin to address the Palestinian issue. These are fragile hopes. As things stand, it is easier to conceive of innumerable darker possibilities.
And, no, it doesn’t matter that McEwan’s views had shifted by the time the book was actually published. The man spent two years shadowing an actual brain surgeon (who can’t afford Fitzroy Square, incidentally, making Perowne that much more Marty Stu-ish), and the fateful Saturday almost certainly happened during this time. Furthermore, there’s evidence that McEwan still had a hawkish impulse by late 2003.** What Perowne thought in the novel was what McEwan thought whilst writing it.
**Ellis Sharp again: “What intrigues me is WHEN Ian McEwan finally arrived at the conclusion that those who marched, protested and campaigned against the war were “completely correct”. He evidently hadn’t reached that understanding by the end of 2003, even though by that time it was howlingly obvious that the invasion had indeed been about securing Iraq’s oil reserves for the USA and transforming the country into a client state serving the interests of US capital and foreign policy. This was because on 20 November 2003 when 100,000 people marched through London protesting against the war and Bush’s state visit, McEwan didn’t participate but preferred to dine at Number Ten with Laura Bush.”
Anyway, let’s introduce our Iraqi lecturer.
Miri Taleb is in his late sixties, a man of slight, almost girlish build, with a nervous laugh, a whinnying giggle what could have something to do with his time in prison. […] His arrest came one winter’s afternoon in 1994, outside a lecture room where he was about to teach. His students were waiting for him inside and did not see what happened. Three men showed their security accreditation, and asked him to go with them to their car. There they handcuffed him, and it was at that point that the torture began. […] For the following ten months he was moved around central Iraq between various jails. He had no idea what these moves meant, and mo means of letting his wife know he was still alive. Even on the day of his release, he didn’t discover what the charges were against him. (p. 61)
The climate of fear in Iraq is then described in loving detail:
[His cellmates] were mostly very ordinary people, held for not showing a car license plate, or because they got into an argument with a man who turned out to be a party official, or because their children were coaxed at school into reporting their parents’ unappreciative remarks at the dinner table about Saddam. Or because they refused to join the Party during one of the many recruitment drives. Another common crime was to have a family member accused of deserting from the army.
[…] The various security services existed in a state of nervous competition with each other, and agents had to work harder and harder to show how diligent they were. Whole branches of security could come under suspicion. […] Everyone, from top officials to street sweepers, lived in a state of anxiety, constant fear. The men who beat [Taleb] did so without hatred, only routine vigour—they were scared of their supervisor. And that man was frightened for his position, or his future liberty, because of an escape the year before. (p. 62-63)
See? See?, the text is saying, This is why we must invade! This is why we must bomb the stuffing out of a country whose leader we had previously shook hands with. Shout it from the rooftops, why don’t you: BOMB BOMB BOMB IRAQ!
It’s a wee hawkish. There’s more:
“Everyone hates it,” Taleb told Perowne. “You see, it’s only terror that holds the nation together, the whole system runs on fear, and no one knows how to stop it. Now the Americans are coming, perhaps for bad reasons. But Saddam and the Ba’athists will go. And then, my doctor friend, I will buy you a meal in a good Iraqi restaurant in London.” (p. 63)
No one seriously disagrees about his record of genocide – perhaps a quarter of a million Kurds slaughtered, thousands of their villages destroyed, the ruthless persecution of the Shi’ites in the south, the cruel suppression of dissent, the widespread use of torture and summary imprisonment and execution, with the ubiquitous security services penetrating every level of Iraqi society. It is an insult to those who have suffered to suggest, as some do, that the US administration is the greater evil.
My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.
…and then our Iraqi torture victim, in a cliched gesture of
fealty gratefulness toward the white man for heroically and manfully striding in and saving his wayward people from themselves, will buy said white man dinner. Retch. (An earlier draft must have had Baghdad in place of London. It must have.)
Come to think of it, the entire character of Taleb is a cliche. A stupid, obnoxious, outrageous white supremacist caricature; a man held up as a Normal Typical Iraqi, a man who holds the “correct” opinions of disliking the government of his homeland and appreciating the government of the (very white) land to which he came. (Retch again.) I think this conclusively demonstrates that McEwan has either never met an actual Iraqi in his entire life or has his head stuck up his own posterior. Probably both.
One final thing. I want you to read this:
When I ask about the alleged torture, it’s the only time during our interview that he loses his cool.
“I was punched and kicked,” he said. “Soldiers cut my clothes off, they shaved my hair and beard forcibly, they took pictures of me naked, dogs frightened me, they interrogated me naked; that was torture.”
He also says he saw two men beaten to death and heard the sounds of a woman screaming next door that he was led to believe was his wife.
He says some of his worst moments, though, came from much less dramatic circumstances. He spent most of his time in solitary confinement, he says, in a small cell with no natural light with no meaningful contact from his family and nothing to read. He says that with no end in sight he got very depressed and looked forward only to sleep.
Under which country’s administration did this man’s heinous treatment occur? That’s right, America’s. You know, that regressive, third-world pissoir of whom Britain is a puppet state. At least Iraq didn’t hold any pretensions to being a “free” country. I’d also like to know how the US had any serious claim to being morally superior when it was in fact that nation which perfected the mechanics of genocide, back when it slaughtered zillions of Native Americans in the 1800s. And which is now doing the same with people of color. It is an insult to those Americans which America was and is trying to actively exterminate to say that the Iraqi administration was the greater evil.
Would that McEwan would shut up and stop opening his putrid, disgusting mouth until he gained a little perspective.
There’s a parting shot. This whole time Perowne’s been observing a newly-minted addict suffer from withdrawal on the square outside his house. As he leaves to go down the stairs, he thinks,
It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and fine-tuning that alter fates, the close and distant influences, the accidents of character and circumstance that cause one young woman in Paris to be packing her weekend bag with the bound proof of her first volume of poems before catching the train to a welcoming home in London, and another young woman of the same age to be led away by a wheedling boy to a moment’s chemical bliss that will bind her as tightly to her misery as an opiate to its mu receptors. (p. 63-64)
It clearly doesn’t trouble him enough. Otherwise he wouldn’t be a liberal.