The Sense of an Ending
Vintage Books, London
You read. You read everything. You have your favourites. The modern, the different, the unique seduce you. Unconsciously, then, you are drawn towards only those books. Magical realism, subaltern literature, Latin American fiction, Indian writing in English. It’s been Marquez, Llosa, Calvino, Allende, Ghosh, Roy, Zafon, Achebe and Thiongo for some time now. And then, something comes along, from an Englishman, a tightly-knit plot, a straightforward narrative and with not one superfluous word or sentence. And you wonder. What for, all this experimentation in form?
I picked up Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending, after several recommendations from friends and family. First, a fellow blogger, suggested I read it for it’s astonishing insights on memory. Second, my Cousin R has set up a veritable evangelical church called ‘A Sense of an Ending’, urging all and sundry to read it. So finally, I picked it up, well disposed to being phenomenally impressed. And impressed, I was!
Before you read further, be warned that this review contains a few spoilers. Tony Webster was part of a clique of four in school. Another member of the clique was the intelligent and effortlessly philosophical Adrian who was a bit of an enigma. In the first part of the story, a 60+ Tony recalls the circumstances in which a young Adrian kills himself, and in particular, his relationship with Adrian’s then girl-friend Veronica and her family. In the second part of the story, astonishing new information unravels and Tony finds he has to re-calibrate his judgments about most of the people in the story. And with that his previous telling of history falls apart.
What Barnes is saying about memory reminded me of what McEwan says about eyewitness testimony, and in extension memory, in the Atonement– that it is hugely suggestive. Memory is also subject to the vagaries of the human state of mind, both when the memory is being formed and when it is being recalled. Memory, then, is a rather unreliable documentation of past events. Which means it isn’t truth. But does this necessarily mean it’s a lie? Memory hints at a part of truth. And this is what Barnes is trying to explore with this book.
What is, perhaps, a little unconvincing, is the candid way in which the narrator continues to narrate the story in the second part. When the letter he had written to his friend Adrian re-surfaces after all this time, we realize that the impression he had hitherto been giving us was quite off the mark. Bur more importantly, the narrator himself is a victim of this deception. One wonders if it is all that easy for someone to alter their perception of themselves. Isn’t it more likely that the character should build the letter into his already scripted memory…somehow? I would assume that we would rather rationalize the ‘new evidence from the past’ than live with the discomfort that arises from the in-congruence between it and our memory.
Despite this small glitch, this is a superbly crafted, pithy commentary on memory and a definite must-read. And it illustrates what my mother is wont to reiterate about the nature of ‘gossip’, ‘ He says this. She says that. And then there is the truth.’