Amis and his “urges”

I meant to write about this a while ago, but put it aside due to work. In a previous post I said I’d always admire Martin Amis for writing novels like Money and London Fields. What I didn’t say was that Amis has done precious little in recent years to earn further admiration. After publishing his memoir, Experience, he wrote a non-fiction book about Stalin called Koba the Dread, which from the extracts I read was more about his friendship with Julian Barnes and Christopher Hitchens. What better way to commemorate the tens of millions of victims of Stalinism than by thrashing out a tiff over which well-off author said what about Communism back in the 70s? The book was followed by Yellow Dog, infamously hated by critics (and by this reader).

Post-9/11, Amis published some meditations on the war on terror, in the form of a short story, “The Last Days of Muhammed Atta” and a long essay, “The Age Of Horrorism”, both published in The Observer. The short story contained an intriguing meditation on Atta’s “punishment”, suggesting that for the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers the very definition of hell was to be trapped with his own rage and self-loathing for all eternity. I myself had a slightly different view, believing that hell can be defined as having to read Amis’ lengthy description of the terrorist straining on the toilet, trying to take his final dump.

The essay wasn’t much better; a confused melange of stereotypes, overgeneralisations and Amis’ own overwhelming belief in the importance of his own opinion. Even the word “horrorism” in the title just seems silly, as his overblown prose attempts to hype up a shocking event (which doesn’t really need hyping up) and simply can’t compete.

Which brings me to the essential elements of Amis’s writing – he is an atrocity tourist. For the last few years, he has been trawling the worst parts of the 20th Century in his books; the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, the Gulag in Koba the Dread and House Of Meetings. In a review of the latter book, Nicholas Lezard writes:

Amis has always described the world, even west London, as being full of the worst things. This almost irresponsible hyperbole has always been his trick, what gives his writing its finest and most distinctive savour. But now he has found the worst thing in the world, and the style now fits it neatly.

Except his search for “the worst thing in the world” inspires him to bring his both-barrels writing approach to complex, real-world issues, and this inevitably causes problems. Witness his now-infamous comments in a September 2006 interview with Ginny Dougary in The Times:

“What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part.”

This “urge” may well have stayed buried if Terry Eagleton, Amis’s new colleague at the University of Manchester, hadn’t brought them up. Quite honestly, any airing of these views by anyone I know would have prompted a furious response from me. They are absolutely disgusting and advocate collective punishment based on ethnic origin (“people who look like they’re from the Middle East”). Quite apart from the futility of such tactics in persuading people to give up terrorism, he also expresses a worry in the same interview that:

They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

This is plain, old-fashioned racism – the never-ending fear of the white man being outbred by “inferior races” that has recently gained new currency through far-right authors such as Mark Steyn. The fact that Mart described these opinions (and has since defended them) as an “urge” makes them even more nauseating – he acquires the nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of a saloon-bar bigot trying to justify his prejudices.

Since the story broke in the mainstream media, Amis has been trying to play it down. Does he prove he’s not a racist? In this Channel 4 News interview, he demonstrates nothing except an impressive ability to wriggle out of any question asked him. But the more ominous conclusion I draw from this episode, and from Amis’s terrorism-related writing, is not that he hates Muslims, he simply doesn’t see them at all. The talk of discriminatory tactics, strip-searches and deportations doesn’t come from a misunderstanding of counter-terrorism or unawareness of the futility of collective punishment. It comes from seeing a billion or so Muslims (1.5 million of whom live in Britain) as less than human.

In his amateur and highly selective sketching of Middle East history and his plans for the Great Islamic Reformation contained within “Horrorism”, he never outlines what any actual Muslims may think about this. They are just pawns to be pushed around on the chessboard of Martin Amis’s big ideas. The danger is that seeing people of a certain religion as a problem to be dealt with is an idea that is spreading through the political and intellectual circles of the West, with dangerous consequences.

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Filed under academia, books, media, politics

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