As a general rule every Kingsley Amis novel features a central protagonist that is more or less Kingsley Amis. Once you come to terms with that fact it makes the inevitable disappointment easier to bear. ‘I Like it Here’ is no exception. Garnet Bowen is an author making a living from selling articles and reviews. He has two sons and a daughter; he considers himself progressive, despite his open xenophobia; he is permanently priapic, and considers fidelity to his wife a vaguely optional extra. He is unpleasant, boorish, boring, and unlikeable, and the fact that we are supposed to find him roguish, charming, witty and loveable makes it all the worse. Bowen fears everything foreign, especially the thought of making a trip abroad. This is the central conceit of ‘I like it Here’. Hilarious, no?
Bear in mind that this novel was written in the late 1950’s, when mass market tourism had yet to take off, and most British men had only been to Europe to kill people. Bowen was involved in the Second World War but seems to have spent it largely getting into traffic accidents that have left him reluctant to get behind the wheel of a car again – his wife does all the family driving. He is persuaded to take his wife and family to Portugal by a literary editor with a commission and he tentative promise of a job on his return. He is charged with finding out whether the author of a book submitted to a publisher is by a famous reclusive writer. This puzzle forms the narrative heart of the novel, but that is saying little – the mystery just isn’t that interesting. We don’t care either way.
The story arc many readers will expect when Bowen and family eventually set off for Portugal is for him to be to gradually won over by the hidden charms of the country and its people. Amis anticipates this expectation:
“Bowen looked nervously about for peasants. It would be unendurable if they all turned out to be full of instinctive wisdom and natural good manners and unself-conscious grace and a deep, articulate understanding of death”
Fortunately Amis resists this predictable approach – Portugal just isn’t that charming, and Amis/Bowen really genuinely doesn’t like foreigners and the foreign. The fact that Portugal was at the time experiencing the long reign of a quasi-Fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, only finally shaken off by the Carnation revolution of 1974, only makes matters worse.
This is a lazy novel. A strange requirement of winning the Somerset Maugham award was that Amis had to travel abroad for three months. Amis described his decision to spend his time in Portugal as a “deportation order”. To create this novel all he then did was to transcribe his experiences, and add the authorship mystery as a flimsy narrative filler. The gaps between the two component parts are pretty obvious once you know what you are looking for, and explain the lethargic feel of long stretches of aimless descriptions.
Even Amis disliked the book. In the 1975 Paris Review he wrote
“It was written partly out of bad motives… I really cobbled it together out of straightforwardly autobiographical experiences in Portugal, with a kind of mystery story perfunctorily imposed on that. The critics didn’t like it, and I don’t blame them really…it’s really a very slipshod, lopsided piece of work.”
Are there any redeeming features in the novel? It is clear that Amis was not a fan of the Salazar regime. He disguises his mild xenophobia behind a discussion of the merits of travel – the novel’s title is deliberately ambiguous, in that the ‘Here’ which Bowen likes could be either the UK, (specifically England) at the start of the novel, or eventually it could be Portugal, once Bowen comes to terms with its overall foreign-ness. In fact he spends most of his time with ex-pats, and encounters very few Portuguese people during his stay. Sadly that’s about it. Apart of the mess that is the plot, Amis is still polishing his ability to turn a phrase, and the idiosyncrasies of character that in ‘Lucky Jim’ were very funny, here, once repeated, fall flat.