How do you remember events that took place 20/30/40 years back in your life? How big has the influence of those incidents been on your life as you know it?
These are but two of the questions tackled in this 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning book by British author Julian Barnes. A very small book- it runs just 163 pages – it forces you to think about the profound consequences of our words and actions, about how things that might seem totally disconnected at one time turn out to be entwined later on.
The opening paragraph of the book describes vague recollections from different points of the narrator’s life which are later revealed to be pivotal plot points. Tony Webster is a retiree who recalls how he and his friends Colin and Alex meet Adrian Finn, the new boy in school, and how things panned out thereafter. They become best friends and vow to keep in touch regardless of where life takes them. Adrian is much brighter than the rest of them and his answers sometimes confound even his teachers. Mr. Barnes’ description of the feelings of oversexed adolescent students and the general irreverence with which they view authority is so masterly that you can’t resist a chuckle. That part of the book, which constitutes the bulk of the first of the two chapters the book is divided into, provides for lots of laughter. The last couple of lines from the chapter are among the many literary gems in the book.
“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”
Tony reflects on the paths they all took after completing school. Things never turned out as they had expected (when do they ever do?). Now retired and divorced, all that Tony has are memories through which he remembers his time all those years back and how he never hurt anyone. Until a letter from an advocate arrives at his door one day and shatters his state of bliss, showing him in each broken shard what reality was and how it affected the lives of all the characters ever since. As ignorant and impervious the story of his school life is, so heart-rending is the part where Tony deals with the present, despite both the halves being equally rib-tickling at times.
Mr. Barnes has crafted a novel that will appeal to every person – young or old, poor or rich, failed or successful – because of the way it picks up things we see in each one of ours’ lives and take for granted, because of how in our sense of moral righteousness we forget that the way we dealt with others might not have been as we remember them to be. The book has some profanity at times but nothing that’d imply a sense of excess. It is rich with passages that explore the philosophical themes behind the way people lead their lives. We come across a person who is perhaps living the last decade or two of his natural life and who takes us back to that warm period which we all reminisce about for ages – school life. But as the novel goes on, as each layer is peeled back from what we are seeing, things go deeper and deeper in the moral and physical connections between the characters in the book. I would like to specially mention the finishing passages of the book. Tony finds out that there is something that wasn’t quite what he had expected it to be. That point – that revelation – when it comes is so shocking that I was forced to gasp audibly and pause for more than a few seconds to let the enormity of it all sink in. Believe me when I say that this book will demand, not just deserve, a second reading from you when you finish it, not only on account of its (lack of) girth but also because it completely changes the notion of what we feel is the truth and whether, as I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, the past is as we remember it to be.
P.S. : I was wondering while reading the book that it’d make an amazing movie (in the right hands). Turns out my wish is getting fulfilled. Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling will star in a film directed by Ritesh Batra, the man who gave us The Lunchbox. Eagerly awaiting its arrival.
Genre : Drama
Rating : 5/5 (It is a pity one can’t rate a book more than 5 out of 5!)
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