Ian McEwan: “Utopia is one of the most destructive ideas”

The veteran British writer discusses the clash between faith and the law in his latest novel

Ian McEwan next to his home in Gray’s Inn, the setting of his most recent novel.
Ian McEwan next to his home in Gray’s Inn, the setting of his most recent novel.B. Gibson-Cowan

Fall has turned the trees myriad shades of gold in Gray’s Inn, the historic professional association and residential complex for barristers and lawyers in central London. Four middle-aged women, members of a reading circle, are listening attentively to their guide, who is taking them on a literary tour.

They’ve all just read The Children Act, the most recent novel by British author Ian McEwan – which has just been published in Spanish by Anagrama – and were so enthralled by it, they decided to visit the inns of court where Fiona, the family judge at the center of the story, is based.

In the novel, Fiona’s husband has recently told her he is about to embark on a final extramarital fling. At the same time, she is also caught up in a case she’s overseeing involving a boy dying of leukemia who desperately needs a blood transfusion. But both he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion that forbids the treatment. Fiona has to decide whether to save the boy’s life by giving him a transfusion against his wishes. Over the course of the book, Fiona wrestles with her conscience, and must decide if the law is above religious belief.

As the guide continues his explanation, one of the four women suddenly notices McEwan himself standing just a few meters away. Taking the initiative, she approaches the writer, who politely explains he is giving an interview.

It’s a suitably novelistic beginning to a conversation with one of Britain’s best-known writers, who at the age of 67, has distanced himself from the transgression that characterized his early work, and in recent books has explored the many moral dilemmas of everyday life.

If you tried to live by the dictates of the Bible, you would be carrying out acts of genocide”

Question. This isn’t the first time that you’ve written about a group of professionals in one of your novels. This time you’ve chosen family judges. What have you learnt along the way?

Answer. The rulings judges make, at least the good ones, are the result of a spectacular understanding of philosophy. They display huge compassion and tremendous rationality, which I would say are important aspects of our moral system. And in their worse form, they are venal, lazy, irritating, obscure and stupid. So I guess that what I’m really doing is describing human nature through the prism of a particular institution. Family law has been little explored by novelists, who tend to prefer murder and violence. But it is connected to the moral problems we face every day of our lives: separation, the children’s futures, the end of love, illness. Family courts are filled with very interesting, and often very disturbing, human stories.

Q. Fiona has to make a decision about separating Siamese twins so that one can survive, against the wishes of their Catholic parents; then she has to deal with a blood transfusion to save a Jehovah’s Witness. Up to what point is the book a defense of atheism?

A. Religions and sacred texts are not good guides to moral behavior. If you tried to live by the dictates of the Bible, for example, you would be enslaving people and carrying out acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Many Christians read the Bible selectively. They take what they think is sensible from it and reject the other part. And doing that means operating according to a different moral system to the Bible, a superior one, in fact. Religions have tried to persuade us that God is the source of morality. But that cannot be the case if we need to go to another source to correct that morality. So, what is the basis of the moral decisions we make? Secular law is a higher moral force than any religion. But I am fascinated by this clash between faith, sincere and devoted, and the law.

Ian McEwan next to his home in Gray’s Inn, the setting of his most recent novel.
Ian McEwan next to his home in Gray’s Inn, the setting of his most recent novel.B. Gibson-Cowan

Q. First Love, Last Rites, your first book, was published 40 years ago. Have you reread it, and if so, does it still feel like you wrote it?

A. Yes, without a doubt. I have reread some parts and really enjoyed them, even admired them. Others irritated me beyond belief: technical things – over the course of a life, you learn to write.

Q. You had first-hand experience of the threat of religious fanaticism when the Iranians issued the fatwa against your friend Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses. You even helped hide him for a while. Do you think that was the moment the West realized that the 20th century wasn’t going to be free of these kinds of threats?

A. In the 1980s, for many of us living in post-Christian Europe, religion never entered the conversation. It was something people did 150 years ago, before Darwin. But what happened first with Salman, and then above all what came after with 9/11, brought us face to face with the power of religious faith.

Q. What do you think when you read about schoolgirls from London running away from their families to join the jihad?

A. It’s a complete mystery. One of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought is that of utopia. The idea that you can create a perfect society, whether in this life or in another, is very destructive. Because the consequence is that it doesn’t matter if you’ve killed a million people along the way: the objective is perfection, and that excuses any crime. It’s a fantasy that has had its non-religious adherents, such as Soviet communism, for example, or the Nazis. The idea of redemption, which dates back thousands of years, always needs an enemy.

Q. The inexorable passage of time is very present in your latest book. How are you dealing with getting older?

Just when you learn to live, you have to check out. A bullet is headed your way and you won’t be able to dodge it”

A. The other day I was talking to Martin Amis over email. We both agreed that we’re reasonably happy, and we complained about how sad it is that just when you learn to live, when you get the hang of it, you have to check out. A whole series of little signs – from a backache to losing your hair – are there reminding you that a bullet is headed your way and you’re not going to be able to dodge it. So you might as well use the time you have left well.

Q. What makes you happy?

A. I am deeply in love with my wife, and that is a great source of happiness. Working makes me happy. Friendship, walking, playing tennis. For the first time in my life, since I was a child, I have a dog. That is a source of happiness, and of absolute interest. I am also very happy to have become a grandfather.

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