The evolution of a monster in a portrait of Soviet life

HOUSE OF MEETINGS

By Martin Amis

Knopf, $23, 256 pages

REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE

In an essay on “The Golovlyov Family” by the Russian writer Shchedrin, the eminent V.S. Pritchett wrote: “Certainly the characters are all wretched or unpleasant, and the reader of novels who professes that strange but common … attitude to literature: ‘Would I like to meet these people?’ must leave the book alone.” And yet, Pritchett argued, Shchedrin’s book is not “the gloomiest of the Russian novels,” but rather a work of such power and severe realism that by its end, “we are moved beyond description.”

Can the same thing be said of “House of Meetings,” Martin Amis’ new novel, set mainly in Soviet Russia? Without question, its principal character is as wretched a creature as one can imagine, a former member of the Soviet army during World War II who is prone to amoral violence and misogyny. But does Mr. Amis’ gritty, hardened portrait of Soviet life touch us the way a Yevtushenko poem or a Shostakovich symphony does? The answer depends, I think, on how convincing is the Russian voice of this accomplished English novelist.

The book begins in the present day, with the unnamed narrator traveling near the Arctic Circle, en route to the gulag where he was enslaved some 50 years ago. He is close to death now and is, by his own admission, “a vile-tempered and foul-mouthed old man.” As he sets down his memoirs, jumping between present and past, we see what is essentially the evolution of a monster.

What else can we call a man capable of this bit of cool, anti-heroic self-analysis: “My dealings with women, I concede, were ruthless and shameless and faithless, and solipsistic to the point of malevolence. My behavior is perhaps easily explained; in the first three months of 1945, I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany.”

Those horrors are a mere prelude to the events he will soon describe: his experiences at the Norlag work camp, above the 69th parallel. Here in the notorious slave archipelago, he is cast among lowlifes and intellectuals, thugs and political prisoners, criminals and dissidents, all trying to survive amid brutal, subhuman conditions. As in any society, there is hierarchy here, though at Norlag the lawlessness establishes a pecking order in which the criminals dominate the “educated,” “cultivated men,” who eat “slops on their hands and knees.” Violence is the lingua franca of this camp; beatings and death are the business of the day.

Against this backdrop, the novel’s central tension unfolds when the narrator’s half-brother, Lev, arrives at Norlag, accused of being “a political, a fascist.” Lev is everything the narrator is not; a pacifist and a poet, he suffers, but he refuses to raise a fist; he will sooner be ostracized than sacrifice his humanity by returning a blow delivered to him. He will not become an animal. Thus does Mr. Amis offer, in these half-brothers, two ways in which to live, to endure unimaginable circumstances.

The problem is that Lev, prior to arriving at Norlag, has married Zoya, none other than the woman with whom the narrator is in love. Perhaps “in love” is too gentle a phrase. “I could sulk and pine,” the narrator confesses, “but my obsession was dependably and gothically carnal.” Though the narrator’s prior relationship with Zoya has been platonic (one aborted kiss notwithstanding), the realization that Lev is now married to the object of his obsession arouses in him destructive feelings of lust, envy and anger, which continue to fester in him throughout the novel.

How much of the narrator’s wretchedness can we attribute to jealousy, unrequited lust and an innately flawed nature? And how much can be blamed on circumstances beyond his control, on the repressive, soul-destroying fascism of Soviet Russia? The state robs the narrator of his humanity, his sense of justice, his future, his ability to love. But can we come to terms with his lack of personal responsibility, and “attribute [his] failure to historical forces, along with everything else,” to accept that “history did it?”

The narrator believes that violence in Russian life is pervasive and cyclical, that “when it comes to death … Russia remains a land of opportunity.” He invokes the North Beslan hostage crisis and the Dubrovka theater siege of 2002, and we become aware of a morbid, never-ending pattern.

But violence is not just the stuff of massive historical events; it permeates the everyday, the mundane, as well. On a train bound for Norlag in the present day, for example, the narrator observes this disturbing, arresting scene: “The carriage is suddenly visited by a cloud-burst of mosquitoes, and in silent unanimity — with no words or smiles or glances, with no sense of common purpose — the passengers set about killing every last one of them.”

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