Martin Amis Represents a Problem: That Some of the Most Acclaimed and Privileged Writers in the English Language Fail to Engage with the Most Urgent Issues of Our Time

By Pilger, John | New Statesman (1996), June 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Martin Amis Represents a Problem: That Some of the Most Acclaimed and Privileged Writers in the English Language Fail to Engage with the Most Urgent Issues of Our Time


Pilger, John, New Statesman (1996)


On 1 June, the Guardian published along essay by Mar tin Amis, entitled "The voice of the lonely crowd". It was about 11 September and the role of writers. What did Amis think about on the momentous day? He thought he was "like Josephine, the opera-singing mouse in the Kafka story: Sing? 'She can't even squeak."'

By that he meant, I guess, that he had nothing to say about "the conflicts we now face or fear", as he put it. Why not? Where was the spirit of Orwell and Greene? Where was a modest acknowledgement of history: a passing reflection on the impact of rapacious great power on vulnerable societies, which are the roots of the current "terrorism"?

Amis referred rightly to the "pitiable babble" of writers following 11 September. Most of the famous names were heard, their contributions ranging from morose me-ism to an aggressive defence of America and its "modernity". Not a single English writer commanding the celebrity that provides an extraordinary public platform has written anything incisive and worthy of our memory about the meaning and exploitation of 11 September--with the exception, as ever, of Harold Pinter.

Compare their "babble", and their silence, with the work of the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the subject of a fine Guardian profile on 8 June by Maya Jaggi. Darwish is the Arab world's bestselling poet; people's poet may sound trite, but he draws thousands to his readings, thrilling his audiences with a lyricism that touches their lives and makes sense of power, injustice and tragedy. In his latest poem, "State of Siege", a "martyr" says:

I love life

On earth, among the pines and the fig trees

But I can't reach it, so I took aim

With the last thing that belonged to me.

Darwish's manuscripts were trampled under foot by Israeli soldiers at the cultural centre in Ramallah where he often works. I was in this building last month, not long after the Israelis had left. They had defecated on the floors, and smeared shit on the photocopiers, and pissed on books and up the walls, and systematically destroyed manuscripts of plays and novels and hard disks. As they left, they threw paint on a wall of children's drawings.

"They wanted to give us a message that nobody's immune -- including in cultural life," says Darwish. "Palestinian people are in love with life. If we give them hope -- a political solution -- they'll stop killing themselves."

Perhaps it is unfair to compare a Darwish with an Amis. One is speaking for the crimes against his people, after all. But Amis represents a wider problem: that some of the most acclaimed and privileged writers writing in the English language fail to engage with the most urgent issues of our time. Who among the collectors of Booker and Whitbread Prizes speaks against the crimes described by Darwish--the product of the longest military occupation in the modern era? Who, since 11 September, has defended our language, illuminating its abuse in the service of great power's goals and hypocrisy? …

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