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Laudatio de Pilar Carrera

Laudatio Pilar Carrera

It is not an easy task to write an encomium on Ian McEwan. He is recognized worldwide as one of our foremost contemporary authors, both by critics and by his readers and peers, a rare and enviable achievement. Although a writer stricto sensu, McEwan likewise is, at the same time, part of our audiovisual world since some of his works have been adapted into well-known films; projects in which he himself often participates as a screenwriter.

Thus, I will not be redundant, repeating data that everybody here knows very well. I will instead speak about my experience as a reader of his novels, knowing that fundamentally a reader’s experience is far from being personal, as his or her figure, that some theoreticians define as narrataire, is anticipated and expected in all stories. It is just another character that we tend to confound with our own subjectivity if the narrative enchants and captures us, as is the case with the magnificent storyteller Ian McEwan.

My relation with McEwans’s texts began with a recommendation from a very dear friend: “You have to read On Chesil Beach.” And so I did. A few days later the inevitable question was asked: “How was it?” “Very interesting,” I replied without further explanation. I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings but, in that moment, if I had been totally sincere, I would have replied: “exasperating”. And here lies the crux of the matter. There are narratives with which we can feel identified, since they are comforting and enjoyable to read because we feel safe within them, because they are consonant with our own ideas and likes; there are narratives that leave us indifferent and which tend to be simply forgotten, often before page 10, and, then, there are those very few narratives that straight away declare war on us because they disturb our mind provoking a level of uncertainty. I found myself in the latter, belligerent context, which is probably the most authentic of all reader’s experiences. After offering this laconic response to my friend, I began to ponder the matter more seriously. What was the origin of my dissatisfaction? What was creating in me this reaction of neither indifference nor pleasure? Perhaps the fact that McEwan showed no mercy for his characters, condemning them to a lifetime of penance for youthful errors that were mostly the byproduct of social conventions that they had acquired seemingly by osmosis? Why were they obliged to suffer their entire lives for the insecurities, fears and misunderstandings of their youth? Why were they condemned to live without love and without a second opportunity? Of course, it wasn’t necessary for these stories to have a happy ending but, at least –I thought to myself– it would be fitting to grant them the opportunity to begin again, even if only just to stumble over the same stone.

Incapable of satisfactorily dealing with this, I put the book down to return to it at a later date when an almost detective-like curiosity drove me to explore more McEwan texts in an attempt to find the key answers to calm my restlessness and return to the familiarity of the binary system: I like it / I don’t like it. I have to admit that I failed completely. That elusive and indomitable writing that acted like a spy, sewing doubt, was determined to leave me in no-man’s land, in some reading purgatory, with the same stubbornness shown by some of McEwan’s characters. “There will be no way to atone for these readings!”, I thought.

But I am tenacious and, after getting over this initial perplexity, I was back to the fray, adopting probably the only rational position: “If you can’t beat them, join them” and I placed all McEwan's works that I had accumulated onto one of my library shelves. Not on one that is close to the ground or nearly touching the roof, but at eye level, in order to allow them to attract my attention and in such a way that whenever I pass in front of them I put myself on guard.

Having arrived at this reconciliation, to say it somehow, every new McEwan novel, far from bringing me closer to deciphering his works, raises questions of labyrinthian proportions obliging me to approach it as would the Benjaminian flâneur or Robert Walser’s wanderer: that is, not waiting for any Minotaur’s reward.

I do not agree with the “heroic” point of view of some critics who say that McEwans’s books reflect “the banality of evil”. This expression, coined by Hannah Arendt, has become a kind of emergency exit when the subject slips between our fingers.

On the other hand, it’s true indeed that, sometimes, there is something thorny and gothic about his stories, but I also think that this is a way of getting realism out of the comfort zone and keeping it under control. Nevertheless, there are few stories more dark and sadistic than those known as fairy tales, which we read to our children with complete normality. I’m sure Peter, his Daydreamer, would agree with this, as well as the incommensurate and bellicose Bad Doll.

I strongly believe, on the other hand, that McEwan’s apparent inclemency with his creatures is, at heart, a form of humanism: let us all assume responsibility for our decisions because no story, religious or secular, will free us from what we have internalized consciously or unconsciously. Everyone must be responsible for the stories they tell to others and to themselves, for their beliefs and disbeliefs, for their “aberrant decoding”, as Barthes would say, for their misunderstandings and for their empathy or the lack of it. This is what it is about, after all.

There is a form of realism in McEwan that seems to me particularly radical and interesting, and that has little to do with the rhetoric that we usually associate with this word or the traditional set of conventions from which a so-called realistic story is built. I am talking about realism of a communicative nature. Returning to a concept that is characteristic of the Communication theory, at the heart of the interactions between the central characters in McEwan’s novels is neither the supposed transparency, nor the coincidence between what someone says and what another one interprets, but what has traditionally been thought of as a dysfunctional part of communication: noise, understood as that which creates interferences by adhering to the emitted signal. Noise and secret that are, furthermore, the true center of all communicative activity: be it personal, political and, of course, artistic. In this last case, not as a means to a specific end but as material and source on which an artistic discourse is grounded.

McEwan has granted his characters the right to remain secretive, to continue to surprise and bewilder the reader, to atone for their actions and, if they so desire, to sink without mitigation and even to narrate while floating in amniotic liquid. Let us think of the protagonist in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, who claimed his right to be considered guilty and, in this way, free himself from a proliferating narrative. This right, usually only a prerogative of the bad guys in books and films, is given by McEwan to even the most mortal of his characters. But, above all, he has accorded readers the freedom of perplexity, of discovering the pleasures of a labyrinth with no other reward than its own frequentation.

We must congratulate ourselves for the incorporation of such an outstanding intellectual as Ian McEwan into our faculty. His works have taught us to reflect on the contradictions, both individual and collective, that constitute us as subjects in a world that has made the notion of crisis its hallmark.

Thank you for your attention.