Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

The Curious Case of the reverse narrative.

Marcel Berlins notes that the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ostensibly based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from the 20s, also shares a storyline with a much more recent novel, the Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. Whether the screenplay was inspired by a more recent take on the being born old and regressing in age theme, it's hardly one which is entirely unique.

Science fiction especially has often used if not the device of being born old, then certainly the idea of aging backwards. Even more notable, at least in my opinion, was the use of the theme by Martin Amis in his 1991 novel Time's Arrow, one of his lesser known but exceptionally well judged works. Taking its cue from how the doctors in concentration camps harmed rather than healed, a reversal of their natural role, everything is backwards, with the German war criminal who managed to escape to the United States un-noticed going from his death, to practicing as a GP, to finally back to alongside Mengel himself. While Amis's powers have dimmed notably from his heyday, his use of language no longer used to illuminate and astound but more to bludgeon, as his essays on the war on terror testify, few writers could have kept the central conceit going so vividly, especially when writing on as sensitive a subject as the Holocaust. The reverse narrative results not in the deaths of those condemned to die, but their revival, and with it, rather than the extermination of an entire race, their creation. It's not only a masterfully simple way of broaching the horror, it also gives hope itself: Amis's point, as well as showing the reversal of humanity, is that even from the most terrible of acts something new emerges. A message far more substantial than that which Benjamin Button even begins to offer.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007 

Never forget straw-man day.

What better way to commemorate the passing of another anniversary of The Day The World Changed Forever than sitting down with a nice cup of tea and reading Martin Amis's latest dispatch on how the liberal relativists are traitorous bastards?

I admit, I paraphrase slightly. But only slightly. Amis, who last regaled us with his views on Islamic terrorism, the "long war" and the inadequacies of the leader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohammad Atta, in a fictionalised account of that morning and in a lengthy essay titled the Age of Horrorism, on err, September the 10th last year, today has his latest attempt published in the Times, presumably because even the Observer is tired of his tedious, tendentious ramblings.

Titled "9/11 and the cult of death", Amis travels down the same weary, familiar trail that he has passed along numerous times before. For a man once considered and still thought of by some as our greatest living novelist, it's quite odd how he can't get beyond, like many others, simply and disingenuously comparing takfirist jihadism to either Nazism or Bolshevism. His main link, rather than any real analysis of how these movements became popular and took power, is that all three are at their very heart irrational, against modernity and hark back to a romanticised past which in actuality never existed which they want to recreate.

Thing is, Amis has tried this before, and got burned while doing it. His 2002 book, Koba the Dread, both a memoir and an account of Stalinist crimes, was widely panned because he failed to recognise the difference between Trotskyism and Stalinism, deciding after doing huge amounts of research that both were equally responsible for the crimes committed between 1917 and 1953. Indeed, he even refers to Trotsky as a "fucking liar and a nun-killer", which he may well have been, but does little to prove his point. Even more puzzlingly, Amis in the book quotes Orlando Figes eloquently explaining the difference between Nazism and the Russian revolution, with fascism "spitting in the face of the enlightenment" while communism was "an experiment which the human race was bound to make", yet he still could not see how one has become the embodiment of evil while Stalinism, responsible for possibly more deaths than Nazi Germany, has entered history condemned but with nowhere near as much ignominy. Whatever we think today of Stalin and the Soviet Union, it's hard to forget that without Hitler's greatest mistake of invading Russia and the huge blood sacrifice of the millions of Soviet citizens, the war might still have been lost.

Not learning this lesson, Amis promptly compares today's Islamic death cult to both the Nazi and Bolshevist variants, without worrying about the ahistoricism of such a weak argument. Not content with just that, he then relates a recent experience of when he appeared on Question Time, and after giving what he thought was a centrist argument on the war on terror is loudly shouted down by someone making the ignorant point that because American armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan that it should be bombing itself. Amis takes this, and the audience's apparent "unanimous" applause to mean that if they were given

the choice between George Bush and Osama bin Laden, the liberal relativist, it seems, is obliged to plump for the Saudi, thus becoming the appeaser of an armed doctrine with the following tenets: it is racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist, and genocidal.

Not only is this a false dichotomy, it's a fallacious straw man as well. Amis, perhaps unaware of it, appears to be channelling George Bush himself, who said in the days after September the 11th that you're either with us or you're with the terrorists. Amazingly enough, you can both oppose all the above tenets, the murderous rampages against innocent civilians by the "Islamic State of Iraq" and the original war itself, sold on lies and misinformation without having to choose between either. For once, Tony Blair was right: there is a third way, and that Amis and others don't see it is only going to entrench the failure of the so-called war on terror so far.

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