Friday, September 08, 2006

Review of Martin Amis: The last days of Muhammad Atta

Martin Amis was born to inhabit the post-9/11 world. His earlier works are rendered numinous by the sense of imminent apocalypse, the feeling that civilisation's grip on survival may slip at any moment. Amis's response has been almost personal, as if he specifically were targeted; the scrappy narrative of Yellow Dog is disordered by the viscerality of his emotion, disarming his critical intelligence. As James Thurber wrote, in the happier and more carefree days of 1930s Europe: "He had always feared that something like this would happen to him, and now it had". So it is no surprise to find that five years on he is still focused on terror and its agents; the question is whether he has been able to apply analysis beyond emotion and narrative.

The Last Days of Muhammad Atta is a longish short story, filling a gap in the real chronology of the attacks with a visit to a dying imam to collect a bottle of holy water. It is based largely on reality, so much so that arguing about what 'really' happened becomes a legitimate critical stance. But since it is also an interior monologue of someone now dead, it also is, emphatically, a fiction.

Most is based on inference. Amis has described the moral revolt of the body, the physiological resistance to ethical sickness, previously, in Time's Arrow, and it seems reasonable that Atta might suffer similarly. In trying to present the thought-processes of a terrorist, Amis is exploring the big question: Why? How could humanity do such things?

From a UK perspective, there is a long tradition of not caring very much about motivation. The tedious horrors of the IRA bombing campaign awakened no desire to know why they were doing it; a dismissive shrug implied that they must, for whatever reason, like doing these things. This may have been partly ignorance: few would have responded to a set of grievances which started in 1690, or 1649, or maybe back in 1167. But it was also the product of a determination that anyone resorting to violence should lose the right to be heard (so much so that the government had to consistently mislead parliament by denying that it was, in fact, negotiating with the terrorists while stating publicly that it would under no circumstances do so). Even 7/7 was met with bewilderment rather than curiosity. Things seem to be changing now: the recognition that there is a vast pool of ill-will rising slowly to the boil is spreading.

Even so, Amis is perhaps wrong to assume that his readers are as interested in 9/11 as he is; certainly his casual mention of the 'muscle Saudis' relies on too much detailed knowledge (the phrase seems to be one of his coinage): not everyone knows or cares too much about what happened, even if their geopolitical concerns leads them to be interested in consequences.

In some ways, Amis cheats, since he does not provide an insider's account of religious fanaticism tied up with modern technology; rather his exemplar is a steely nihilist who has rationally identified jihad as the only contemporary cause worth following. In tone, Atta sounds most like the blandly certain figure of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent; and of course this is a reminder that nihilism is not new, going back at least 150 years.

Nor, of course, is zealotry. Although the story only shows the fanatics through the distorting contempt of Atta, this is little loss, since we know zealots, we've done zealots. They are hardly a new phenomenon. Even the suicidal element is not completely new: in the past, nationalists have been pleased to praise those who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, either on an individual basis, as soldiers, or on an industrial basis, like the kamikaze pilots.

So perhaps the problem Amis is picking at is not a problem at all; or only a practical problems: people behave in this way, as they have before. How to stop them? It depends on what made them that way. Atta is presented as a sociopath: his world is without laughter, or music, or love, or sex, or passion: the closest he comes to enjoyment is in spite and certitude; if one were to ask what radicalised him, one would have to ask a psychologist, not a politician.

He story has some epistemological flaws: on a couple of occasions, the author reminds the reader of what followed Atta's death (hardly necessary in any case, but in any case unknowable to Atta). There is one clear error: Amis says Atta knew that the steel would buckle, the towers would collapse. He probably didn't, since the architects who designed it didn't know; and there is an army of conspiracy theorists willing to argue that the steel did not in fact buckle, and demolition charges were needed to make it do so. It is more plausible that Atta's sacrifice was made in the expectation that the crash would be gesture, a ruthless, potent, symbol of the illusory nature of the West's invulnerability, rather than large-scale slaughter.

The story is plotted as a circle, a circle of hell, in which Atta is doomed to relive this day, with its petty and great punishments, for ever. This is a plot Amis has used before, in his earlier short story Denton's Death, itself a macabre reworking of Kingsley Amis's short short story Mason's Life. The question of justice hangs over the whole enterprise, of sufficient or appropriate punishment. Theologians across the centuries have found it easier to excuse the suffering of the righteous (since it is good for the soul, or because they have sinned) than the flourishing unpunished of the unrighteous. Amis feels that mere extinction is insufficient punishment, a feeling with popular support, although he might be surprised to find himself agreeing with those who say 'Death is too good for him'.

Although it may not be Amis's intent, his portrayal of Atta as a banal, limited, troubled individual humanises him: these are not monsters. If they were, the action required would at least be clear. But life is not as simple as that.

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