Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Regarding the pain of others

The title is from Susan Sontag’s last book, a meditation on the modern condition of being linked to the world by images of terror and disaster but insulated from feeling the pain they portray.

This lack of feeling is what most troubled me about “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” the Martin Amis story that appeared in the New Yorker recently and will be published in Britain as part of a book of short fiction in September. I posted about Amis interjecting what seemed an anti-Islamic canard about Muslims not being able to tell the difference between raisins and virgins. But even more, I disliked the lack of empathy for anyone in the story. It seemed the literary equivalent of going back to a train wreck, not only to gawk at the wreckage, but also to compete for attention with the victims by doing flashy acrobatics on the sidelines.

Leah, at Ashcan Rantings, has a personal connection to 9/11 and is also unenthusiastic.
I think this story was published in The New Yorker (which usually has excellent writing) due to its controversial topic and not its merits. Either that or the editors forgot to read it.
Anniversaries being such natural marketing hooks, the temptation for publishers to evoke the memory of 9/11 will be irresistible. I only hope that some of what is published comes closer than Amis did to the achievement of Haruki Murakami after tragedy twice struck his native Japan more than a decade ago.

The year 1995 was to Japan what 2001 was to the U.S., and it prompted the same kind of national soul-searching. First Mother Nature leveled the city of Kobe in a disastrous quake that killed 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless. Two months later, the religious group Aum Shinrikyo staged the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. While it only killed 12 people, it injured some 6,000 and traumatized millions more.

Murakami returned to Japan from abroad, dropped everything and spent months interviewing subway attack survivors as well as members of Aum. The result was “Underground,” a masterpiece and his first work of nonfiction, written with a novelist’s compassionate eye. Fiction took longer, but five years later he published “After the Quake: Stories.” The short stories in this collection eloquently address the emotional aftermath of the earthquake. Told with the iconic simplicity of dreams or fables, the stories don’t directly address either the subway attack or the Kobe tragedy, but they are haunted by the author’s emotional response to both events.

The difference between the stories of Amis (who has done some terrific work in the past) and Murakami? Amis creates a flat and lifeless caricature. Murakami memorably evokes real people. They could be people we know.

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