"Atonement" by Ian McEwan

En esta novela sobre la clase, la culpa, la fragilidad humana, el amor malogrado y el destino, el premiado autor inglés construye una narración absorbente que se despliega hacia un final imposible: ¿es destino o accidente lo que nos acecha?

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Daniel Francis

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Sarah Davison

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"Atonement" is a contemporary classic about class, unrealised love and guilt. The novel is regarded as one of author Ian McEwan’s best, and considered by Time magazine as one of the finest of the last century. It focuses on a single day in the summer of 1935. On this day, Briony Tallis, a wealthy, creative teenage girl, witnesses a series of interactions between her older sister Cecilia and the family’s cleaning lady’s son, Robbie Turner. 

Briony interprets these interactions as abuse on the part of the young man, but the reality is that Robbie and Cecilia are just realising they have romantic feelings for each other, which they have been harbouring unknowingly for years.

“Initially, a simple phrase chased round and round in Cecilia’s thoughts: Of course, of course. How had she not seen it? Everything was explained. The whole day, the weeks before, her childhood. A lifetime. It was clear to her now. Why else take so long to choose a dress, or fight over a vase, or find everything so different, or be unable to leave? What had made her so blind, so obtuse?”

Al principio, una simple frase daba vueltas y vueltas en los pensamientos de Cecilia: por supuesto, por supuesto. ¿Cómo no lo había visto? Todo quedaba explicado. El día entero, las semanas precedentes, su infancia. Toda una vida.Ahora lo veía claro. ¿Por qué, si no, tardar tanto en elegir un vestido, o disputarse un jarrón, o verlo todo tan distinto, o ser incapaz de irse? ¿Qué le había hecho ser tan ciega, tan obtusa?

MISPLACED GUILT

On that same night, Briony finds her cousin Lola in the arms of an older man and assumes she is being raped. By completely misunderstanding the interactions she had seen between Robbie and her older sister, Briony reaches the conclusion that the one raping Lola was Robbie. Years later, Briony finds out that the man she saw with Lola was not Robbie, but a family friend of a much higher social class. The events of that day ultimately lead to the demise of the three main characters: Cecilia and Robbie’s love story never materialises, and Briony lives a life of regret.

“Briony learned a simple, obvious thing she had always known, and everyone knew: that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.”

Extrajo una enseñanza simple, una cosa obvia que siempre había sabido y que todos sabían: que una persona es, entre todo lo demás, una cosa material, que se rompe fácilmente pero que no es fácil recomponer.

CLASS AND LOVE

As the book focuses greatly on the most minute intricacies of one day, the reader might initially be led to believe that this is because there is no metaphysical destiny and everything that happens is solely accidental. 

“That love which does not build a foundation on good sense is doomed.”

El amor que no asentaba sus cimientos en la sensatez estaba condenado.

However, as the class of the lovers — Cecilia, the rich girl, and Robbie, the cleaning lady’s son — is made a central theme, the text leads us to a different conclusion: class is not something we can just get over, it is a man-made destiny to be reckoned with

“Whatever happened in the future, however superficially strange or shocking, would also have an unsurprising, familiar quality, inviting her to say, but only to herself, Oh yes, of course. That. I should have known.”

Ocurriera lo que ocurriese en el futuro, por muy superficialmente extraño o escandaloso que fuera, poseería también un cariz familiar, conocido, que la induciría a decir, pero sólo para sus adentros: «Oh, sí, claro. Esto debiera haberlo sabido».

STAR-CROSSED LOVERS

As the reader is presented with an image of Robbie striving to reach Cecilia with glorious optimism, it might seem that it is pure chance that ultimately keeps him from her, while actually their class differences are what undermines their love the most. It is class, a class Briony somewhat embodies, that makes their love star-crossed.

“Cecilia always seemed to find it awkward – ‘that’s our cleaning lady’s son’, she might have been whispering to her friends as she walked on. He liked people to know he didn’t care – ‘there goes my mother’s employer’s daughter’, he once said to a friend. He had his politics to protect him, and his scientifically-based theories of class, and his own rather forced self-certainty. ‘ I am what I am.”

A ella siempre parecía incomodarla: «Es el hijo de nuestra asistenta», quizás susurrase a sus amigas cuando pasaba de largo. A él le gustaba que la gente supiera que no le importaba: «Ésa es la hija de la señora de mi madre», le dijo a un amigo en una ocasión. Se protegía con su fe política, con su teoría científica de las clases y con su propio aplomo algo forzado. Soy lo que soy.

THE BRITISH STIFF UPPER LIP

Briony feels guilty for having put her class bias — and frustrated crush — on Robbie in the way of her older sister’s romantic fulfilment. She operates as an enforcer of the British stiff upper lip that so deeply dominates the society portrayed by McEwan, and pays for it with a life of regret. 

“How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.” 

¿Cómo puede una novelista alcanzar la expiación cuando, con su poder absoluto de decidir desenlaces, ella es también Dios? No hay nadie, ningún ser ni forma superior a la que pueda apelar, con la que pueda reconciliarse o que pueda perdonarla. No hay nada aparte de ella misma. Ha fijado en su imaginación los límites y los términos. No hay expiación para Dios, ni para los novelistas, aunque sean ateos. Esta tarea ha sido siempre imposible, y en esto ha residido el quid de la cuestión. La tentativa lo era todo.

FREE WILL VERSUS FATE

Briony remains somewhat frozen in that day, and feels personally guilty of causing Cecilia and Robbie’s romantic frustrations. The theme of destiny, or lack thereof, returns as Briony, now a successful writer, crafts a text with an alternative storyline of her sister’s love with Robbie: one in which the lovers triumph and manage to live without shame. In doing so, she tries to give them the life she feels she took from them. 

The novel, which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 2007, leaves the reader with the question: is it up to Briony to atone, or was she just a vessel of insurmountable class conditions, prejudices and British social customs? It is possible that if she had said nothing, someone or something else would have inevitably separated Robbie and Cecilia. 

“Now she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself shrinking under the early evening sky.”  

Ahora estaba de regreso en el mundo, no en el que ella creaba, sino en el que le había creado a ella, y sintió que se encogía bajo el cielo del atardecer.  

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Este artículo pertenece al número de Febrero 2023 de la revista Speak Up.

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