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Book Review: The Sense Of An Ending – by Julian Barnes

May 22, 2015

Ordered this book in Flipkart after reading some short reviews.

Julian Barnes won the Man Booker for the novel so now I know after this and Arundathi Roy’s ‘God of small things’ what you must write to qualify or get nominated for the prize!

Initial pages were boring and it was tough to sustain my interest. I only could hang on because the story seemed short.

But its good I persisted. Liked the way the life of Tony Webster wound over decades from the world war times. Not quite impressive but his mediocrity is what I found charming! Everyone cannot become Churchill & Beatle – world needs rest of us to carry on life in all forms! From a school boy, Tony crosses various stages in life finally to retire as yet another non-descript pensioner- a mediocre from start to end who fails to excel in any front. There is nothing remarkable about our Tony boy but then there are neither major or drastic upsets. I thought about it even midway. Dull, still balanced. Today enough water has flown under my bridge that I know what it takes to have a tranquil life.

Tony leads a typical middle-class or perhaps even spartan life filled with usual boyhood fun, growing-up uncertainties and mature adulthood. I like the way he handles his divorce with a determined calmness. His conversations and equation with his ex-wife are interesting. I feel sympathy for the man.

I found myself turning pages back & forth and rereading certain paras. Old age is inevitable and how we wish we could go back in time and redo things! All of us have regrets so why not Tony. His routine life changes tack, disturbed with the arrival of a mail that leads to developments.

The ending left me confused and thinking. Googled for others’ views on the book – something I rarely do. Some confirmed what I thought and some viewed it a bit different.

Anthony Webster, the chief character & narrator in the story, lives his prime in another time, another age where values were not as same. Post retirement he receives a check bequeathed to him by a long-lost acquaintance which is the key to the plot. Tony has flashes of memory – but like in Alzheimer’s etc he seems to remember and recall oldest names & incidents in his life with better clarity although some of them are hazy. The bits & pieces of connect with the past is great literary work in my humble opinion.

Tony writes a mean letter in his college years, to Adrian Fin who his ex-girlfriend Veronica dates which is so spiteful. Previously Veronica’s family does not treat Tony well when he visits them, with their open snobbishness towards the miserable small town boy. From here one is led to believe Veronica’s mother Sarah is the only saint in the family of villains and Veronica is the reason for any bitterness but the ending takes you by surprise when it is proved otherwise. Quite a 90 degree turn. Whereas you get cross with Veronica for her frosty attitude with Tony throughout the book.

I am not sure whether Tony could have fathered Adrian Fin Jr. as some suppose. Its funny it never struck me when I read the book but some readers have posted opinion that there could be no other reason for Sarah to leave behind her diary and cheque to Tony. Yes it did get me wondering why Sarah must do it.  I thought she did because she simply could ‘connect’ with Tony the way Veronica, the daughter could not. And Tony was once Adrian’s best friend. I feel bad for Veronica who is the loser throughout.

How could Adrian Jr recognize Tony. The plausible explanation is that, he could have been shown the pictures. No, now I am certain Tony is not his father.

More than once I did also wonder whether Adrian Sr would come under Autism spectrum today.

Tony would have to live the rest of his days with as much pain and that is the ‘karma’ as far as I can see. Worse than a death sentence. There is no way one can escape one’s conscience. On the other hand given Tony’s age when he wrote the letter and taking into account his maturity at the time, we can ‘set him free.’ Tony can excuse himself if he would like to. But in all probability he won’t.

The story left me quiet for an evening when I finished it. Sometimes we may or may not know about the consequences our actions could lead to – the damages we might do to others in the wake of our reckless journey called life. We have to pause pretty often and take stock of our environs. Why think of ‘hell’ in the afterlife. Our ‘guilty conscience’ is the living hell.

Lolz on lighter side, I recall my standard 12 maths board paper. It was Mar/April 1986. In the 3 hour exam I first started working out a 7 mark theorem/problem opting for it in choice. Then I couldn’t solve it completely – it was integral calculus. I started sweating. I crossed it out and started the next one from differential calculus I guess. The same thing happened and I scored out the second one as well. After 30 minutes I saw that I had recorded zero answers in my answering sheet. Panic set in and I started working out the rest of the question paper with such a feverish anxiety that before I could complete the exam, the bell rang. I still scored 85% in the exam but the thoughtless scoring out of first 2 answers haunted me for a continuous 1 month thereafter. I never forgave myself – later I came to know, it was the same with everyone. It was announced in newspapers in the following days that the first 2 problems were insolvable and those who attended them would be given grace marks. Had I not scored out my steps/workings, I would have crossed 95%. In all my school exams I had scored centums in maths. From class 9 to 12, I had an obsession with 100% in maths. In class 10, I got 98%. My 12th paper sent me into a depression like I never felt even for the loss of my parents! So my degree admission proved a bit difficult because of my low marks in maths. I could not get into the finest colleges and I got into a lousy one – for which I suffered the next 3 years.

Even in my graduation days I could remember the exact problems and my steps until the end. Like a flashback they played in my mind for months, years. Even now I get it lolz but now I don’t remember the problems. It is just that its a maths exam and before I finish – time-up! – and the teacher collects my answer sheets and I panic like hell!!! I start crying as if my whole life depended on that one maths paper!

Sometimes I therefore wonder how our politicians etc might feel guilty about their ‘leelas’ (deeds).  If they should ever that is (which is a big question mark!).

Even if I buy an expensive kurti or eat at a posh restaurant I cannot sleep the night peacefully! I ask Goddess to forgive me for overindulging myself. Same thing with answering back my MIL or gossiping about relatives. At once I feel shame and ask my Mother to pardon me.

Recently shopping with a friend, I came to know she feels the same way about spending money. Or gossiping (rarely). It was a relief to know I was not abnormal after all!

Why I am saying this is, I can understand how Tony Webster in this book must be feeling in the evening of his life. He won’t be dying in peace – which could be such a cruel punishment.  The burden of guilt would never let him hold his head up in cheer. There is no court of law over our conscience. We cannot fake or forfeit or argue our unjust cases in this one chamber of justice. Tony could absolve himself of guilty consciousness if he belongs in the present – but then he belongs in another world, another age where all these things sadly matter. And most of all Tony cannot be held responsible for Adrian Jr. But then there is that letter he wrote long back which comes true like a prophecy… he ill-wills for someone something which alone is his guilt. Sufficient guilt.

I am glad I read this book. Worth every penny. A battle of wills that’s it.

 

 

 

 

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