SEVERAL YEARS AGO, long before his fame and subsequent notoriety, before Money and London Fields had hit bestseller lists, Martin Amis had found himself in Bombay. It was around 1980, by when the ‘mercenary’ curiosity in him as the son of Kingsley Amis was thinning, as he describes it, and those who’d expected him to write a few books and shut up—as writers’ sons are wont to do—were beginning to get impatient. Asked by the BBC to do a piece on Bollywood, Amis checked into Holiday Inn at ‘Joojoo beach’ (Juhu Beach), and for the next two weeks, he visited movie sets and met film stars. He spent time with Dev Anand. He saw the crowds that pursued Bollywood celebrities, although he eventually never wrote the article.
Today, back in the city after around 35 years, sitting by a window at Taj Mahal Hotel’s Harbour Bar, his ageing profile lit up by the lights that bounce off the Arabian Sea, he appears genuinely distressed to learn that Dev Anand has long died. But then his face lights up at a memory. “There was this comic actor,” Amis says, working his fingers and eyebrows into agitation, “What was his name? Mac-mood (Mehmood). Ah, yes, Mac-mood. I asked Mac-mood, ‘How famous are you?’ And he said, ‘Come out and I will show you.’ And we went outside and suddenly there was this huge riot. And he looks at me then, amidst the riot, and says, ‘That’s how famous.’”
Meeting Martin Amis is like meeting a rock star from one’s youth. But the so-called enfant terrible of British fiction is more an indulgent grandfather than a bratty rockstar. With his hair combed backwards, his slight frame in a light blue crumpled coat, he walks with small calculated steps as though he is measuring the length of the room. He speaks like the narrator in The Rachel Papers in ‘one of those fashionable reedy voices, the ones with the habitual ironic twang, excellent for the promotion of oldster unease’. His language is peppered with vivid adjectives and references from several writers and thinkers. Listening to him is like reading an Amis novel—filled with delightful asides and a peculiar interest in unpleasantness.
Trump Loves to talk about it, Loves to grab—all that. But I don’t think he wants to have anything to do about it. There are no stories of him actually having sexual intercourse with anyone. It’s all vicarious.
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Amis is in Mumbai to participate in a literature festival. Every few hours, he sneaks away from his sessions at Tata Literature Live to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. During sessions, where he can’t possibly smoke, something that resembles a pen emerges from his coat. It is only when he chews at it and something glows at the other end that you realise he is smoking an electronic cigarette, though with the same insouciance he does his usual tobacco sticks.
At Harbour bar, a bevy of waiters try to interest him in sandwiches and fries. He looks into every plate brought to him before declining. He’s content with tomato juice. What interests him right now—elbows on the table, his face moving from one side to another to emphasise a point—is a character perhaps his early fiction could have dreamt up. Someone borne of the grotty London pubs of Amis’ imagination, someone like the destructive antihero John Self in Money, raised on a diet of pills, porn and junk food. Amis is interested in talking about Donald Trump.
“[Trump’s] sexual reputation is completely misunderstood in my view. He is not a type,” he declares, early into the interview. “He is a niche. He is quite a rare sexual type.” Leaning in with an almost conspiratorial murmur, he says, “Loves to talk about it, loves to grab—all that. But I don’t think he wants to have anything to do about it. There are no stories of him actually having sexual intercourse with anyone. It’s all vicarious.”
What does Amis mean?
“Like Hitler. He has two character traits identical to Hitler. He is obsessive about cleanliness, like Hitler. He hates drinking and smoking too. Hitler too was a kind of virgin. [There’s] no evidence that Hitler ever had sexual intercourse with anyone. There was Eva Braun [his wife]. That’s the strongest circumstantial evidence. But… they had separate bedrooms and bathrooms,” he says. “When we talk about a lech or even a lady’s man, someone who means what he says, when he digs a woman in the ribs, he means it. Trump doesn’t mean it. He likes to look. He likes to touch. He likes to throw his weight around. It’s about power. Why do you think of all the women who’ve come out so far, most say he does it in public places, at crowded parking lots or luncheons? You don’t do that if you are serious about it… He said every vagina is a potential landmine. It was on Howard Stern, that degenerate late-night TV thing. Trump admitted that he had doctors he used to make girls have tests with… suggesting most women are pullulating with disease. A real lech will be prepared to take his chances.”
When we talk about a lech or even a lady’s man, someone who means what he says, when he digs a woman in the ribs, he means it. Trump doesn’t mean it. He likes to look. He likes to touch. He likes to throw his weight around. It’s about power
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Amis watched the results of the vote with his wife Isabel Fonseca at his home in Brooklyn, where he moved from London in 2012, with what he calls horror and incredulity. The minor story behind this win, according to him, is that because Trump’s appeal is subterranean, people are shy to admit they support him. The big story, according to him, although he claims it sounds fantastic and almost a bit of a conspiracy theory, is how technology has come to disrupt truth, the reality of the so-called ‘post-truth’ world, where objective facts become less influential than appeals to emotional and personal beliefs in shaping public opinion. “When [Trump] said, ‘I could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and my popularity wouldn’t decrease,’ he blundered unconsciously upon something that was true,” he says. “My theory is that in the last 10 years or so, the internet has had a huge effect on people’s psyche. I have seen diagrams that compare a literate brain with an illiterate brain. And it is psychologically very different… But the cyber-savvy brain looks different from a literate brain, very much from an illiterate brain. When we say it changes us, the internet, it is literally true. It changes the arrangement of the brain. Around 2001, I read somewhere everything you read on internet is 60 per cent true. That’s no good. I don’t want things to be 60 per cent true. Somehow the standard of truth has fallen which I think is a catastrophe. That means language doesn’t work the same way. It’s an attack on everything, everything that keeps the ground firm underneath our feet. As soon as you give that up, you are in a swamp. Trump lied 70 per cent of the time, without it harming him.”
After moving to the US, Amis attended the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida. He remembers hearing Paul Ryan’s speech where the then running mate of Mitt Romney delivered what he found an electrifying speech, but which later was discovered to be filled with inaccuracies. “It was almost a Republican slogan, an unofficial slogan, where they said, ‘There is no downside to lying’. They have worked out that only about 15 per cent of the populace cares about [truth]. And they are working hard to get rid of that 15 per cent. ‘There is no downside to lying.’ What a fantastic thing to say.”
He has two character traits identical to Hitler. He is obsessive about cleanliness, like Hitler. He hates drinking and smoking too. Hitler too was a kind of virgin
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Amis finds the current scenario oddly familiar with the situation about a century ago when science, and the works of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, appeared so freaky that it created what he calls distrust for truth and reason. “Hitler and Lenin could never use the word ‘reason’ without putting a derogatory adjective in front of it. ‘Cowardly’ reason, ‘evil’ reason, ‘flimsy’ reason,” he says. “In the early years of the 20th century, there was a great distrust of the truth… The basis of rational thinking [then] was undermined by those two thinkers (Einstein and Freud). And Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, they all had a great distrust of reason.”
“It is a great liberation for a while to cast off reason. Because then everything is possible. Stalin would routinely send out orders—‘I want this much coal by next month, despite the objective condition’. Even if there was no coal, he still wanted it… Then in the mid-century, things calmed down again. People realised you did need reason. Nothing stood, nothing lasted, nothing was easy without it. Now we seem to be in that kind of phase again, but with nothing in the outside world that bolsters that idea. There is a sort of wooliness,” he says, “Just the right time for someone like Trump.”
To Amis, race was one of the key topics of the US election. “Imagine you are the worst kind of redneck imaginable, living in a trailer, everyone drunk on painkillers,” he says. “They will still say” —here he mimics a midwestern accent—“‘I may not be much, but I’m better than any Black man around in the country.’ And then they look on TV and they see Obama, and then they are not so sure they are better than him. [Obama’s election] was a great milestone. But it didn’t solve anything. And now they can relax to being racist again.”
For many centuries, Islam has been in decline. This is now a desperate attempt to revitalise it by going back to fundamental passions and beliefs. It can’t possibly work. So what does a fanatical ideology do as it fails? It becomes more and more fanatical
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EARLIER THIS YEAR, Amis was in London to vote during the Brexit campaign. In the Brexit vote, he finds something similar to what has just occurred in the US—a deeper psychological change in the voter’s mind. “Nothing in the objective world really justifies these changes. It’s not a time of poverty. There was the Great Recession, but we are coming out of that. There has been a little bit of growth in middle-class income. There’s nothing that you can point to that seems to demand radical change. Yet people’s hands are very much directed that way… It makes me feel the change has been internal with the voters.”
The UK, according to Amis, has accepted its decline well. During one session at the festival, he declared on stage, “Britain leads in decline.” But when it comes to the US, he says he is not so sure how America will accept its eventual decline.
Many years ago Amis got into a so- called ‘race row’ with an academic, Terry Eagleton, from University of Manchester. In 2006, after a plot to detonate explosives on 10 trans-Atlantic planes was foiled, Amis had infamously told an interviewer, “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 let them travel. Deportation, further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip- searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East and Pakistan. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.” Eagleton denounced Amis for those comments. And although Amis insisted his remarks were not “advocating anything” but were “a thought experiment… conversationally describing an urge, an urge that soon wore off”, the charge of him being an Islamophobe found many takers.
His gloves haven’t come off, though. He believes since Islam is in retreat, a desperate attempt is being made to revitalise it through terrorism. “Spain translates more books into Spanish in a year than the whole of the Islamic world has done for the last 1,000 years,” he says, a la Condoleeza Rice. “That’s how extreme, how emetic the Islamic world has become. Everyone was saying, 40 years ago, that it is time for Islam to modernise. Then there was this murmur in the Islamic world that Islam is not the difficulty, it is the solution. ‘Islam is the solution’. All this [modern terrorism] is about that. It’s militant Islam, more extreme than ever before. For many centuries, Islam has been in decline. This is now a desperate attempt to revitalise it by going back to fundamental passions and beliefs. What does a fanatical ideology do as it fails? It becomes more and more fanatical.”
According to Amis, the nature of terrorism itself is now undergoing a fundamental change. Although religion supplies it a name, it now attracts sadists looking to make a name. “It’s not just religious anymore,” he says. “John Gray (an academic) says ‘anomic terrorism’ (where intense alienation inspires terrorism) is going to be just as powerful as Islamic terrorism. Where you have to be very angry and slightly crazy. That guy who drove the truck in Nice, he yelled out ‘Allah hu Akbar’ at the last minute. But he hasn’t really been thinking about it. [Terrorism] legitimises that kind of rage. School shootings in America, what is that? It’s a suicide mission, expressing rage and desire for celebrity. They may never shout out ‘Allah hu Akbar’ but they might as well.” And then, with a sinister look, Amis leans in again and says, “It is very satisfying—killing people. That’s what we don’t understand.”
What he does understand is the nuances and pitfalls of language. He will not let a challenge to language go by easily. When someone tells him he is a big fan, Amis replies, “Everyone tells me they are big fans. But I wonder where are the little fans, the small cute little fans.” His war on cliché, it appears, is still on.