Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Rarely does it seem that a great writer is recognized in his time, but Ian McEwan is an exception. Using the trope of two black mastiffs left behind by the Gestapo but still menacing the beautiful French countryside, in Black Dogs (Nan A. Talese, 149 pages) McEwan tells the tale of an older couple June and Bernard Tremaine, living in different countries but still in love. The clever narrator, their son-in-law whose own parents died when he was eight, pieces together the interlacing of the private lives and world events of his adoptive parents from deathbed interviews with once-stunningly beautiful June and her big-chinned rational Marxist politician husband. The action toggles in space and time between 1946, the end of WWII, and 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The metaphysical dilemma posed is reminiscent of the yin-yang symbol: though they finally fit together hand-in-glove, Bernard is a skeptic, scientific and rational, concerned with the welfare of the masses and worldly problems; June, originally a communist like her husband, undergoes a spiritual revelation in which she confronts evil, a mysterious light, and intuitive knowledge of God beyond material (and Marxist) strivings. This, for her husband, is a turn toward bourgeois blarney, while his idealistic faith in a better world to her ultimately seems unreasonable. At the book’s end the wild dogs, killers of sheep and would-be killers of June, are left alive, metaphorically representing the potential return of spiritual and material menace to the mending but still wary continent of Europe.

Apart from his brilliant details and locution (the narrator, an intellectual, early on acknowledges Proust’s beautiful convolutions), and the highly readable plot, McEwan demonstrates a complete mastery of the depiction of nuanced human emotions as well as air-tight plotting. At one point, at the Wall’s fall, after June’s death and Bernard’s confession to narrator Jeremy that he checks out young women’s faces for traces of the former beauty of his departed wife, Bernard, old and infirm yet tall of stature and gifted with “senatorial calm” confronts some hoodlum neo-Nazis who are harassing a Turk with a red flag. The Turk gets away but when the street fascists come after intrepid Benard they are cowed into dispersal by a young German beauty who Bernard mentioned earlier was one that reminded him of June. When Jeremy intimates the metaphysical significance that the one he was looking for was the one who saved him despite the material absence of his wife, his comment is, “Yes. Quite a coincidence, I suppose. Now for goodness’ sake Jeremy, get me home!” (p. 77) As go-between balancing his two subjects Jeremy is the site of a world-historical fight between rationality and religion made personal by its incarnation in June and Bernard. In a humorous scene (pp. 94-98) Jeremy in the French second home of his beloved mother-in-law, senses June warning him of scorpions in the cupboard, thereby avoiding a bite but provoking a vivid, if imaginary, discussion between spiritual avatars of his pseudo parents. “Rationalism is blind faith,” says June’s quasi-ghost; “‘June’s presence'” replies Benard’s quasi-ghost, “was in your mind, and projected by you onto the surroundings. Given our fear of the dead, it’s understandable that you were wary as you stumbled through the house in the darkness…Scorpions,” the entomological hobbyist adds, “are common enough in this part of France.” Later (in the narrative, earlier in the history it narrates) Benard will be captivated with the alien face of a caterpillar in his pregnant newlyweds hour of canine need:

“As he had knelt down, his cheek grazing the path, to stare up close at the head of the leading caterpillar, at a hinged face of inscrutable parts, he had though how we share the planet with creatures as weird and as alien to us as any that could be imagined from outer space. But we give them names and stop seeing them, or their size prevents us from looking. He reminded himself to pass this thought on to June, who even now would be walking back up the path to find him, possibly a little cross.” (pp. 124-125)

She is more than cross, though, she is potentially dead herself at the slavering black jaws of bleeding dogs supposedly trained by the SS to violate interrogated females. All is resolved, and not resolved, by the end of this compact wonder of observation and articulation.

Dorion Sagan, author of  The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

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