Sunday, February 1, 2015

Like or Unlike

 It seems to be a common trend that former  school friends tend to look up each other with the hope to re-connect with one other several decades after leaving school. It can be nice to see some of these friends particularly those with whom you were once  close to  and  have since drifted apart as we became  caught up with each of  our own lives. But quite often I find that such connections can be contrived as it is doubtful if we can ever take our friendships from where we left as if all those years had not passed us by. While these friends endeavour to show that friendships that we forge during school days can withstand the test of time, I have my reservations.

Like’ written by Ali Smith took much longer than the time it normally takes for me to finish reading a book. The writing is very good but it is a little heavy going particularly when I cannot  relate to the characters though the theme is familiar in that it is about two childhood friends whose stories are told in two separate parts of the book. The book begins  with describing Amy Shone , a single mother with a seven year old daughter, Kate Shone and they live a nomadic life. Amy seems to have lost her ability to read and write and from reading the second part of the story told through Ashling McCarthy as she reminisces, we know that Amy has a glamour past and was a Cambridge scholar in her young days.  The story leaves many questions unanswered but the author’s prose is fabulous. Smith writes,

‘Amy Shone. A surname like that will haunt your life. Everything becomes something you did better then, before, in the shining days. But not if you don’t let it .’

Snow is a good idea. Snow will cover everything, that’s its grace. Lie quietly everywhere, quieten everything, cool everything to a standstill, blow into the barky crevices of trees, fill the spaces between the light low blades of the grasses, bend and hold them down, settle without question over anything cold enough left in the open. Good dry snow will fall without sound and leave everything white. Up here it can cling for days to the sides of houses and along the tops of walls and fences, depending on the direction of the wind.’

After reading Smith’s debut novel, I resumed reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It was a light read and the characters are endearing. Then I moved on to reading Amstersdam by Ian McEwan, the book that won the Booker Prize for him in 1998.

Amsterdam is about two friends whose friendship was tested at the time when they should really need each other. Both of them had high regards for their own aptitudes  and commitments in the  work they had respectively made a career in. Vernon Halliday was a newspaper editor while Clive Linley was a musician. Both Clive and Vernon were two old friends who shared some similar attributes and common interests, one of which was that their former love, Molly Lane had died after losing her mental faculty and they  felt that the feisty  girl they once had an intimate relationship  with would have killed herself rather than ended up perishing in that manner.

  Brain –dead and in George’s clutches,” Clive said.

After witnessing the unceremonious death of their former lover, Clive and Vernon became weary of their own deteriorating health and made a pact between themselves that they would assist one another in their euthanasia should they suffer the same fate as Molly.  That raises the morality issues about euthanasia that is made legal in Amsterdam.  Both friends somehow turned to  hating each other when they could not agree on some other morality questions. What happened was that Vernon had been given some pictures by  Molly’s husband, George Lane. Those pictures were taken by Molly of one Julian Garmony,  the foreign secretary who was about to challenge the prime minister at the next election.  Julian happened to be one of  Molly’s lovers too. These pictures might just ruin  Julian Garmony’s chances of winning at the next election. Vernon planned to publish them although Clive had objected strongly as he had felt that it was definitely not right for Vernon to violate the private arrangement between Garmony and Molly. Clive argued that printing these pictures would simply carry out what George wanted and it was an act of betrayal for Molly. After the row, Clive regretted.

Perhaps he had been too hard on Vernon,who was only trying to save his newspaper and protect the country from Garmony’s harsh policies. He would telephone Vernon this evening. Their friendship was too important to be lost to one isolated dispute. They could surely agree to differ and continue to be friends.’

It also dawned on Clive that  there had always been some kind of imbalance between him and Vernon.
Put most crudely, what did he, Clive, really derive from this friendship? He had given, but what had he ever received? What bound them? They had Molly in common, there were the accumulated years and the habits of friendship, but there was really nothing at its centre, nothing for Clive. A generous explanation for the imbalance might have evoked Vernon’s passivity and self –absorption. Now, after last night, Clive was inclined to see these as merely elements of a larger fact – Vernon’s lack of principle.’

Both friends are absolutely egocentric and petty. Although I do not find the plot convincing and the characters likeable, the writing is superb and the description of the characters credible as  some men can be self- absorbed,vindictive and calculative and that such men have a tendency to put the blame of their failures on others  and  are inclined to adopt a no holds barred approach when they are vengeful. Amsterdam poses the reality question about friendships between two long time friends and the story leaves you cold and feeling bleak about how reliable friends can be.


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