I just finished watching Atonement, the flick based on the Ian McEwan novel. In the story, a young girl and budding writer witnesses a series of acts that she scarcely understands and tells a story that implicates those around her and changes their lives forever. For the rest of her life she tries to find a way to redress her mistake.
During the war, as a nurse she tells a dying soldier whom she doesn’t know that she loves him, that she will marry him, that all those whom he knows are fine and well, and she confesses only one truth, that her name is Briony.
Near the end of her own life, long after all the participants are dead, she finds some measure of atonement by writing a book, a true and honest account of the events – no rhymes, no embellishments, no lies – except that she restores the individuals to their original state of happiness.
She believes, we want to believe, in the gracious lie. But isn’t this the writer’s conceit? To think that we can undo what we have done simply by writing about it, by telling yet another story, yet another fabrication? That somehow our imagined understanding of people is commensurate with the people themselves? I want to tell Briony that atonement must fundamentally be not a statement, but an act.
And so why does she wait until the end of her life to write this book? This is the tragedy, I think.
The stories that we write are not necessarily those that we were meant to write. And if it takes a long time to write the stories we were meant to tell, its not for want of courage, but perhaps more due to a lack of wherewithal. She couldn’t have written it because as she advanced in life, she still didn’t understand, or only understood imperfectly what she had done. Even at an age senior to any of the participants, we may lack the clarity and prescience to understand and correctly describe and transmit experience. And we want to get it right, or perhaps even more so, we really are afraid of getting it terribly wrong. But in the end, we’re left only with our imagination and our pen, and we can only do what we can. The heartbreak of it all.