Empathy with the Devil
As a child I visited Sarajevo. There I stood in the footsteps of the man who kick-started World War I by shooting Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at close range in the back of a Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton motor car, killing them both. And now in Peter Barry’s novel I read about another gunman, one who visits the same city, just over eighty years later, also to kill people.
I have travelled to former Yugoslavia regularly, from my childhood to the present day; I’ve talked to some of those who were in Sarajevo at the time of the siege; I briefly witnessed Dubrovnik’s (very different) siege for myself, and I’ve talked to friends of Serb, Croat and Montenegrin origin (as well as the children of ‘mixed’ marriages) about their experience of what we all hope will be Europe’s last war. There are just too many personal overlaps, shared echoes, experiences, coincidences of subject matter for me not to either hate or be enthralled by I Hate Martin Amis et al: I certainly could not ignore it.
At first a story about a spectacularly failed writer called Milan Zorec, a Londoner of mixed Serb/British parentage who sets off for Sarajevo as a 500-Deutschmark-per-kill mercenary sniper, might seem an odd – if not downright painful – read. And that the protagonist fights on the side of the Mladic/Karadzic-led, Milosevic-backed, thugs who destroyed a beautiful, historic city and terrorised its starving inhabitants in modern history’s longest-ever siege, might also seem like an unwelcome revisiting of something we would prefer to leave behind us.
From the woods of the mountains that encircle Sarajevo to vantage points in the shattered suburban tower blocks, Zorec stalks and kills for a range of reasons that become more and more bizarre, yet splendidly legitimised in the thoughts that we are forced to share with him.
I say ‘forced’, but one of Barry’s formidable talents is to develop an empathy between reader and the increasingly insane and self-justifying Zorec, whose bitter musings about the vicissitudes of a cynical London publishing world set him crisply apart from his largely oafish comrades in arms. ‘How dare Martin Amis accept a £500,000 advance on an unwritten book just because he needs to fix his teeth!’ and ‘Surely Zorec’s literary agent could have been a little more encouraging!’, we start to exclaim, sharing Zorec’s outrage and pain. And at almost the same time we think, ‘Well, it’s a dirty job, this sniping at civilians, but this is war, and war’s a dirty business. At least this executioner is a feeling, intelligent person…’.
With great skill, however, the author keeps us on the moral straight and narrow. We never lose sight of Zorec’s process of detachment from humanity, nor the awful banality of the purest evil that he witnesses or, indeed, creates.
Barry writes with such awe-inspiring authority and certainty that I suspect this must come from a long (and possibly agonising) process of distillation. I Hate Martin Amis et al is a devastating tour de force and a brilliant first novel. This is intelligent, provocative entertainment at its best.
Peter Barry, I Hate Martin Amis et al, Roaring Forties Press, ISBN 9781938901157, Paperback, 272 pages, £9.99