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Amending grace: Ian McEwan's novel Atonement suggests a countercultural way to address wrongdoings. (culture in context).

VENGEANCE IS THE AMERICAN MYTH. OUR heroes are avengers of injustice, armed men who right wrongs by punishing evildoers. Hollywood endlessly recycles this dark romance, casting generation after generation of Clint Eastwoods woods, Harrison Fords, and Mel Gibsons as avenging archangels sent to destroy a band of villainous demons.

Meanwhile, Washington reveals its undying love for this revenge fantasy by forever recasting social and economic ills as fiends with whom we must do battle. Every couple of years the cry goes out for yet another "war" against crime, drugs, and now terror, and for fresh troops and new weapons for these deadly conflicts. The fault, we are told again and again, is not in ourselves, but in our foes, and the path to redemption is through their destruction.

Ian McEwan's new novel pokes some unsettling holes in this mythic backdrop, raising hard questions about the stories we tell of our innocence and other people's guilt, and suggesting the almost quaint solution of making amends for our sins. In Atonement, McEwan, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, has written a coming-of-age story about 13-year-old Briony Tallis, a teller of dramatic tales whose creations turn out to be something of a Pandora's box, which she attempts to close by doing penance and fashioning a fresh story in which her own guilt is revealed and partially expunged.

McEwan's narrative opens in an English manor, where, on this sweltering summer day in 1935, Briony is rehearsing her new play, an after-dinner entertainment prepared to celebrate the visit of her beloved older brother Leon and his friend and candy tycoon Paul Marshall. Briony's sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of a family servant, are also at home, having recently finished their studies at Cambridge. And cousins Lola, Jackson, and Pierrot, refugees from an impending divorce, have been conscripted to play the roles in the young dramatist's Gothic romance.

But Briony, "one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so," soon learns that 15-year-old Lola and the 9-year-old twins do not take direction nearly as well as the figurines arranged on her windowsill. Soon the play and the playwright are in shambles and the performance has been canceled.

Still, the drama is far from over, and Briony has quickly brought her creative storytelling talents to the real-life setting around her, interpreting events through the lens of a Gothic and dangerous imagination and imposing this imagined narrative on the lives of her sister and Robbie. Eventually we realize that Briony is a threat because she is such a good storyteller--not because she does not know the difference between fact and fiction, but because she uses fiction to enhance her facts.

Shattered by the demise of her play, Briony stumbles onto a strange scene between Cecilia and Robbie and misinterprets its obvious sexual content. Reading a private note and interrupting an impassioned embrace only deepens this misunderstanding, and soon Briony has recast her sister and friend in a violent drama demanding a heroic rescue and a terrible punishment. By the time she comes upon the scene of a real sexual crime Briony has already chosen her villain, and will not be dissuaded by a lack of evidence or the protests of the victims of her libel. What she has written she has written.

THE TALE BREAKS HERE, SKIPPING AHEAD TO ENGLAND'S retreat to Dunkirk, which is seen here not as the preamble to Britain's ultimate victory, but a consequence of Briony's awful lie. Amidst the chaos and despair of a defeated and fleeing army, an older and different Robbie is trying to make his way to safety and a reunion with Cecilia. The war, however, which McEwan presents not as the brave sacrifice of heroes but a senseless and brutal waste of lives, seems forever on the brink of devouring him and his dreams.

McEwan, a master of plotting and suspense, sucks us into the vortex of his tale, terrifying us with the possibility that all will be lost and tantalizing us with the thin thread of hope for redemption. In a world where a child's tale can wreak such havoc, can two frail souls hope to withstand the chaos that swallowed up a generation? And can there ever be anything like forgiveness for the perpetrator of such a crime?

Both Briony and McEwan are fascinated with this second question. Can amends be made for something that has cast lives in another direction? Can acts that cannot be undone be atoned for? How? To whom? Luke's returning prodigal apologizes for his sins, but how can he give back the years and inheritance he has squandered? Briony must sort out the atonement she owes her sister and Robbie and must figure out a way to grieve the losses she has brought about.

Her own solution follows the advice of medieval confessors, who instructed penitents to embrace a penance comparable to the harm they had inflicted, as well as one that serves as an antidote to their vice. Suffice it to say that Briony seeks a penitential medicine that parallels the exile imposed on her victims while forcing her to face the untidy consequences of her violence. She will take her medicine by changing the course of her own life and taking up a very special cross.

Still, Briony the storyteller knows that in some sense her dramatic sin must be atoned for by telling another story, even if there is no way to unring the bell of her accusation. She must craft a new fiction, tell the world a new story about her victims, one that might undo at least some of the harm of her slander. And she must craft a story in which she is not the heroine but one of the villains, acknowledging the offense she has committed and seeking to make things as right as can be. Only the reader will be able to judge whether she or McEwan have come up with an adequate atonement. I, for one, was not certain.

MCEWAN HAS WRITTEN A POWERFUL and unsettling tale about our overlooked duty to make amends, a story in which the heroine discovers and repents of her own villainy. Self-reproach and atonement are uncommon themes in a culture focused on the sins committed against us by others and eager to demand punishment and retribution. In Briony's tale McEwan has shown us the cruelty and consequences of our rush to judgment and reminded us of the debt we owe for past sins.

In a land ruled by the myth of vengeance we have an unshakable and unreasonable faith in the power of violence to unmake the wounds of injustice, as if killing murderers brought back their victims or healed the broken hearts and lives of their families and loved ones. In Dead Man Walking Helen Prejean showed us that this faith in violence and revenge is an un-Christian sort of insanity. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye and a limb for a limb will leave us all blind and crippled. We are lying when we tell ourselves that strong men with guns can cut through the Gordian knot of all our social ills and make the world right.

In an age where not many of us go to Confession any more, and hardly anyone goes with the frequency that our parents and grandparents once did, we don't hear much about atonement and making amends outside of 12-step meetings. But the truth is, we are always living in the wake of our personal and social sins. We are always forging lives damaged and derailed by our past offenses, which means that we are constantly in need of making amends and atoning for our sins. There are always people walking around bearing the wounds of our sins.

We try to avoid this responsibility by casting ourselves as the innocent heroes of our own stories, the avengers of other people's injustices, but that is never more than a half-truth. The moral message at the heart of the gospel is not a call to self-righteous judgment, but a summons to repent. Jesus does not invite us to cast stones or point out splinters, but to acknowledge our own hypocrisy and repent of our own sinfulness. This is what separates the prodigal from his brother, the tax collector from the Pharisee.

Like Briony, we cannot undo the damage we have inflicted. We cannot rewrite history. But we can admit the wrongs we have done to others and try to make some amends. And every time we are tempted to brood over old wounds and hurts we could remember the debt we owe to everyone we have harmed and everyone who has forgiven us. Imagine what our lives would be like if every time we sat down with our Day-Timers and weekly planners we asked ourselves whom we had harmed and how we might make amends for those sins. Imagine a world not of avengers but amenders.

Patrick McCormick, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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