Excerpt from Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Ian McEwan

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  • First Published:
    Dec 1998, 193 pages
    Nov 1999, 193 pages

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Again. Clive wondered. Was he as domesticated and tame a talent as some of his younger critics claimed --the thinking man's Gorecki?

"She must be good," he said.

It had been a while since he had met a politician close up, and what he had forgotten was the eye movements, the restless patrol for new listeners or defectors, or the proximity of some figure of higher status, or some other main chance that might slip by.

Garmony was looking around now, securing his audience. "She was brilliant. Goldsmiths, then the Guildhall. A fabulous career ahead of her ..." He paused for comic effect. "Then she met me and chose medicine."

Only the aide and another staffer, a woman, tittered. The journalists were unmoved. Perhaps they had heard it all before.

The foreign secretary's eyes had settled back on Clive. "There was another thing. I wanted to congratulate you on your commission. The Millennial Symphony. D'you know, that decision went right up to cabinet level?"

"So I heard. And you voted for me."

Clive had allowed himself a note of weariness, but Garmony reacted as though he had been effusively thanked. "Well, it was the least I could do. Some of my colleagues wanted this pop star chap, the ex-Beatle. Anyway, how is it coming along? Almost done?"


His extremities had been numb for half an hour but it was only now that Clive felt the chill finally envelop his core. In the warmth of his studio he would be in shirtsleeves, working on the final pages of this symphony, whose premiere was only weeks away. He had already missed two deadlines and he longed to be home.

He put out his hand to Garmony. "It was very nice to meet you. I have to be getting along."

But the minister did not take his hand and was speaking over him, for there was still a little more to be wrung from the famous composer's presence.

"Do you know, I've often thought that it's the freedom of artists like yourself to pursue your work that makes my own job worthwhile ..."

More followed in similar style as Clive gazed on, no sign of his growing distaste showing in his expression. Garmony, too, was his generation. High office had eroded his ability to talk levelly with a stranger. Perhaps that was what he offered her in bed, the thrill of the impersonal. A man twitching in front of mirrors. But surely she preferred emotional warmth. Lie still, look at me, really look at me. Perhaps it was nothing more than a mistake, Molly and Garmony. Either way, Clive now found it unbearable.

The Foreign secretary reached his conclusion "These are the traditions that make us what we are."

"I was wondering," Clive said to Molly's ex-lover, "whether you're still in favor of hanging."

Garmony was well able to deal with this sudden shift, but his eyes hardened.

"I think most people are aware of my position on that. Meanwhile, I'm happy to accept the view of Parliament and the collective responsibility of the cabinet." He had squared up, and he was also turning on the charm. The two journalists edged a little closer with their notebooks.

"I see you once said in a speech that Nelson Mandela deserved to be hanged."

Garmony, who was due to visit South Africa the following month, smiled calmly. The speech had recently been dug up, rather scurrilously, by Vernon's paper. "I don't think you can reasonably nail people to things they said as hot-head undergraduates." He paused to chuckle. "Almost thirty years ago. I bet you said or thought some pretty shocking things yourself."

"I certainly did," Clive said. "Which is my point. If you'd had your way then, there wouldn't be much chance for second thoughts now."

Garmony inclined his head briefly in acknowledgment. "Fair enough point. But in the real world, Mr. Linley, no justice system can ever be free of human error.

Reproduced from Amsterdam : A Novel, by Ian McEwan. © 1997 by Ian McEwan, used by permission of the publishers : Doubleday.

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