We, The Immortals

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We, The Immortals
While The Immortals by Martin Amis is “local” in that it is written from the perspective of an English-speaker using humor that appeals to other English-speakers (“New Zealand, I find, is pretty dead at the best of times”), its themes and motifs are truly universal. This is due to two main reasons: first, because the protagonist himself is so essentially human in his thinking and behavior, and second, because the examination of immortality in fictional story form has existed for thousands of years—notably in the ancient Greek and Roman myths—and is thus in itself timeless. The timelessness and broad appeal of Amis’s story is evident in the careful layering of narrative, character development, and deliberate use of language and imagery. In the following essay, I will explore these ideas in greater detail. As the title suggests, The Immortals is concerned with immortality, and more specifically, with mortality itself. The narrator, the Immortal, suffers from an ironic excess of time. He has watched life evolve from the first living cell and, at the time of narration, is watching as humanity breathes its last breath, done in by its own hand in a vague, global-warming type of apocalypse. By employing the narrow perspective of a single, timeless individual, Amis cleverly crafts a story about time and mortality, arguably the most universal aspects of human existence. By giving his protagonist an inhuman characteristic—immortality—Amis creates a character who is inherently relatable. In this sense, the story is really about mortality rather than immortality, and as such has an obvious appeal to people everywhere across culture and geography. Despite its universality, The Immortals retains local elements of place and time. Principal among these is language. The story is written by an English-speaker seemingly for English-speakers, as evidenced by turns of phrase that would be difficult to translate and require firsthand, fluent familiarity with English. The Immortal describes himself as “bushed” after a seven-year all-nighter. On the other hand, he once “sacked out” in Mongolia for a decade. He mentions “cooling [his] heels” while “at loose ends” by picking his nose—and these examples can all be found in the second paragraph. The Immortals is also a product of its time, reflecting not only on the entire length of human history, but also on the future of humanity (at the time of narration). Amis paints the history of mankind as having been only somewhat accomplished, with achievements vastly overshadowed by gross missteps. The story explains that people have themselves managed to destroy the planet: “I saw what you were doing to the place. What was the matter? Was it too nice for you or something?” The result was days that were “a mask of fire”. The Immortal refers to a “poisoned well”—perhaps both literal and metaphorical. References to a roasting, hellish future resonate particularly strongly today, when global warming rhetoric and science are backed up by ordinary people’s observation of a changing, hotter world. In spite of these markedly local characteristics, The Immortal is a distinctly global tale. The exploration of human mortality in literature is certainly not a recent innovation. This is because intrinsic to any discussion of immortality is the notion of mortality, which has defined and preoccupied humankind for thousands of years. The myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for instance, are classic examples of fictional immortals with curiously mortal characteristics. The ancient Greek gods are petty, jealous, and insecure. They make love and make war and enjoy a good party. There is a god for every facet of human interest: Dionysus, the party god; Hermes, the god of travel, trickery, and animal husbandry; and so on. Interestingly, the Greeks employed a range of mythological figures which varied on the spectrum of immortality. It is as though they thought of mortality as...
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