Friday, March 9, 2012

487. Black Dogs – Ian McEwan

History: This novel was written in 1992.
Plot: The novel opens as Jeremy, the narrator, introduces himself by describing his childhood as he was living with his older sister, Jean, and her daughter Sally, who is also an orphan in that June neglects her. Jeremy lives in isolation, but is determined and studious, and leaves home as soon as he gets a scholarship, and never returns. He always carries the sense of having abandoned Sally, who goes on to repeat mistakes made by her mother. He meets his wife Jenny, and he finds comfort and solace in his new family, including Jenny’s parents. Jean, the mother-in-law, is an elderly woman when we meet her. She lives in a nursing-home, but this does not mean she has abandoned her identity, beliefs or self-respect. Nor does she allow others to patronise her. She is a likeable character who communicates well with her son-in-law. Bernard, too, is an elderly man who retains his dignity, independence and individuality. Jeremy is working on a biography of her, and conducts a series of interviews in which she tells him stories of her life with and without Bernhard. This involves the black dog story in a small village in France, when, in her early months of pregnancy, she is confronted and attacked by two ferocious black dogs. The dogs had been left overs from dogs that were trained by the Nazi’s to torture.
The second half of the novel focuses on Bernhard, and Jeremy’s trip with him to Berlin to celebrate the destruction of the wall.
At one point, at the Wall’s fall, after June’s death and Bernard’s confession to narrator Jeremy that he checks out young women’s faces for traces of the former beauty of his departed wife, Bernard, old and infirm yet tall of stature and gifted with “senatorial calm” confronts some hoodlum neo-Nazis who are harassing a Turk with a red flag. The Turk gets away but when the street fascists come after intrepid Benard they are cowed into dispersal by a young German beauty who Bernard mentioned earlier was one that reminded him of June. When Jeremy intimates the metaphysical significance that the one he was looking for was the one who saved him despite the material absence of his wife, his comment is, “Yes. Quite a coincidence, I suppose. Now for goodness’ sake Jeremy, get me home!”
As go-between balancing his two subjects Jeremy is the site of a world-historical fight between rationality and religion made personal by its incarnation in June and Bernard. In a humorous scene Jeremy in the French second home of his beloved mother-in-law, senses June warning him of scorpions in the cupboard, thereby avoiding a bite but provoking a vivid, if imaginary, discussion between spiritual avatars of his pseudo parents. “Rationalism is blind faith,” says June’s quasi-ghost; “‘June’s presence’” replies Benard’s quasi-ghost, “was in your mind, and projected by you onto the surroundings. Given our fear of the dead, it’s understandable that you were wary as you stumbled through the house in the darkness…Scorpions,” the entomological hobbyist adds, “are common enough in this part of France.” Later (in the narrative, earlier in the history it narrates) Benard will be captivated with the alien face of a caterpillar in his pregnant newlyweds hour of canine need:
“As he had knelt down, his cheek grazing the path, to stare up close at the head of the leading caterpillar, at a hinged face of inscrutable parts, he had though how we share the planet with creatures as weird and as alien to us as any that could be imagined from outer space. But we give them names and stop seeing them, or their size prevents us from looking. He reminded himself to pass this thought on to June, who even now would be walking back up the path to find him, possibly a little cross.”
She is more than cross, though, she is potentially dead herself at the slavering black jaws of bleeding dogs supposedly trained by the SS to violate interrogated females.
Review: Having lost his parents in an auto accident when he was eight years old, the narrator of McEwan's splendid new novel is fascinated with other people's parents--particularly his remarkable in-laws, indissolubly linked yet estranged and combative almost since their wedding. A man of reason who was once a Communist, Bernard Tremaine cannot understand why his wife, June, rejected political activism for spiritual quest after "an encounter with evil" in the form of two fierce black dogs. McEwan does not so much tell their story as the story of the son-in-law's efforts to understand them better by writing about them. Though Bernard and June represent diametrically opposed ways of looking at the world--two views beautifully and succinctly captured by McEwan--they are not mere vessels of thought but lively, distinctive characters in their own right. As the narrator returns to the French countryside where June fatefully encountered the dogs, the deceptively simple buildup makes her brush with violence all the more shocking.
McEwan examines the conflict between intellect and feeling, as dramatized in one couple's troubled relationship. The narrator is fascinated by his wife's estranged parents, The lives of June and Bernard Tremaine, whose lives epitomize the tug-of-war between political engagement and a private search for ultimate meaning: their ideological and spiritual differences force them apart but never diminish their mutual love. The catalytic event in the Tremaines' lives occurs on their honeymoon in France in 1946. With the characteristic idealism of their generation, both had joined the Communist Party, but June is already becoming disenchanted with its claims. In an encounter with two huge, ferocious dogs--incarnations of the savagely irrational eruptions that recur throughout history--she has an insight that illumines for her the possibility of redemption. Liberally foreshadowed, --the bloodthirsty beasts are used as an overarching metaphor for the presence of evil in the world-- the actual episode with the dogs is not depicted until the book's final section, where its impact requires the reader to take a leap of faith similar to June's. For some this pivotal scene may not be fully convincing. Indeed, McEwan is rather too didactic in the exposition of his theme, so one may expect too much from the novel's dramatic main event. Yet the work is impressive; McEwan's meticulous prose, his shaping of his material to create suspense, and his adept use of specific settings--Poland's Majdanek concentration camp, Berlin during the dismantling of the Wall, a primitive area of the French countryside--produce a haunting fable about the fragility of civilization, always threatened by the cruelty latent in humankind.
Opening Line: “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people’s parents”
Closing Line: “They are crossing the shadow line and going deeper, where the sun never reaches, and the amiable drunken mayor will not be sending his men in pursuit, for the dogs are crossing the river in the dead of night and forcing a way up the other side to cross the Causse; and as sleep rolls in they are receding from her, black stains in the gray of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.”
Quotes: “It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turne dout after all - who they married, the date of their death - with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.”`
Rating: Very Good.


  1. The term 'Poland's Majdanek concentration camp' is incorrect. The Nazi Germans established the 'concentration camps' on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish. Please correct the remark.

  2. Please correct your use of the term "Poland's Majdanek concentration camp" as the camp was established by the Nazi Germans when they invaded Poland.

  3. Sir, the oxymoronic phrase "Poland's Majdanek concentration camp", mixed in one sentence with the adjective "meticulous" has, perhaps unintended comic effect. For your information, the concentration camps were established and operated by the German government mostly on the occupied Polish territory. Ethnic Poles and Jews were in Nazi German plans targeted for total extinction, and this is already not a comic subject. Please correct your historical background and this unfortunate sentence.

  4. Whilst Majdanek is on Polish soil, it was built by the Nazis whilst Poland was under occupation by them. To suggest this death camp was a Polish camp is a grave insult to the millions of Poles who also suffered at the hands of the Nazi occupiers.