Nostalgia is a perception and a misty one at that. You memories are essentially facts about your life you had forgotten. History is not the “lies of the victors”, it is more “the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”- those who are sort of in a no-man’s land and in a constant tussle to lead life “peaceably”. History also, “is that certainty at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.
Confessions have always held a sacred place amongst the tools of an author. Across generations, from Lolita to Moll Flanders, A History of Time to Crime and Punishment this form of narration confronts the reader, nudging him to understand the narrator in ways the author has deliberately held back his pen from describing. In an open-ended book, such as The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, the very same narration strikes gold in the eyes of the receptive reader, leaving him to interpret as he may the fate and the wry thoughts of the delinquent narrator. What makes the narration all the more brute is the reliability of the narrator. If we are, by deft means of course, left in the lurch as to whether to trust the narrator or not, a new story constructs itself parallel to the original. This guides the reader as in a mystery novel, as if a puzzle lies in waiting.
The Man-Booker winner novella tells us a poignant tale of a man’s quest to retrace his life and discover amazingly new and tantalizingly destructive facts- one that is bound to shake the whole system he based his life on. In the words of Webster, the narrator- “My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.” In some ways, the novel turns back on the notion that life, lead in full, is supposed to welcome wisdom. This novel, in a way negates that, suggesting it may further compound the questions themselves. A life which ends in questions? Is that so hard to believe?
The novel achieves the distinction of being didactic, a page-turner and at the same time, a sharp observation that casts an intensely ferocious look inside the machinations of a complacent life. The narrator provides us a disclaimer as to his inadequacy at having understood life, even his.
“This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”- to the credit of the author we have been presented with a disclaimer in the very first page itself!
Nevertheless, as we turn the pages, the wry, sometimes splittingly funny, sometimes brutally honest and cutting observations push us to give him a sympathetic ear and cannon-blast attention- till we come to the second part of the book where both our and the narrators’ beliefs are shook to its very foundations.
As Webster looks into his childhood days, he describes the dramatic entry of one Andrew Finn: “There had been three of us, and he now made the fourth. We hadn’t expected to add to our tight number: cliques and pairings had happened long before, and we were already beginning to imagine our escape from school into life.”
“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives—and when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first indiscernible.”
The setting is a classic 60s England where those “book hungry, sex hungry, meritocratic and anarchic” youth indulged in understanding intellectuality, British snobbery and the idea of life and where “morbid disbelief was a natural by-product of adolescence”. Finn, the ideal intellectual with a supremely confident notion of history, life and of British mannerisms- also the leader of the pack of 4 who “each felt himself close to Andrew” and regarded his notions in high esteem.
“I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious. I really hate it.”- Finn in one of his rarest outbursts; is symbolic of the pathos of the British sense of being, one he found condemnable and one in which Tony finds solace post his “humiliating” encounter with his girlfriend Veronica’s family- the root of the novel.
His ideas and principles were a mystery to them and hence he had become de-facto the coolest person in their eyes. So much so, his death, as a suicide, had a profound effect on them- each wishing to decode his parting note and trying to understand life as it happened to them. Of them, Tony, the most observant of the lot, or so we are led to believe had a different take on life- he respected Finn but did not emulate him, unlike the others.
“So for example, What if Tony…”
As a 60 year old, while Tony recounts his largely amiable, complacent and peaceable life he receives a notice from a solicitor informing him of a will bequeathed on him by the late Mrs. Ford, mother of his ex-girlfriend of 40 years ago. A sum of 500 pounds and a mysterious package of unknown whereabouts is what is left for him. When he discovers it’s a diary of his friend Finn, he sets out on the elusive, mysterious and pounding quest to get back the diary, believing the diary would be a revelation as every diary is supposed to be. In the process however, as shreds of new evidence creak through, pushing him to shed his mind-blocks a shattering revelation about his past, one he had blocked himself out of, resurfaces. It is his piquant self, with acid in his tongue that leaves him dumbfounded and in the peril of recalibrating his entire existence.
History now becomes “the self-delusions of the defeated”.
“We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”
The book trudges the thin line differentiating the “collective” and the “personal” history. One relying on “documentation” and the other on the imperfect assimilation of a forgetful memory and an imperfect documentation.
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”- And surely, Webster masterfully continues to construct lives in his mind as he compiles newer information.
The book, in a way is also, despite its justifications for suicide and “taking things into ones’s control”, a celebration of life. It focuses on grave existential concerns and tries, albeit in a complicated fashion to bring out the essence of life.
Sample this: “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things, rather than facing them. Time . . . give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical . . .”
Tony, in his unassuming way wanted an average, peaceable life, thinking, erroneously that he was being mature and responsible. As things go, he comes to disregard, even block things out of his way.
For me, the most rewarding aspect of the book is the astounding depths this concise masterpiece goes into trolling the inner workings of human emotions. Through brutal honesty and razor-sharp observations the machinations of the human mind, the frailties of the older age, the irresponsible youthful exuberance and “the attraction of overcoming someone’s contempt” is brought to the fore.
Carpe Diem! Cliched as it may sound the desire to live life to its fullest is given its full treatment in the book. Barnes plays to the ideology that it is better to regret something which you have done than regret something which you haven’t.
But anyways, “that’s kind of philosophically self-evident” isn’t it?