- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007


By Martin Amis

Knopf, $23, 256 pages


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.”

The belief that it is impossible to escape from a general condition of violence allows the narrator to justify the most horrid of crimes. It isn’t just the fact that he commits a rape that troubles us, for example; it’s the way in which he reduces his victim, through metaphor, to nothing more than an animal: “A faint sound issued from her, nasal, a soft whinnying; she was like a [dog] all atremble in her basket, chasing cats and cars.”

If we are to believe him, what he does has “no meaning. It was gratuitous, it was perverse, and it was dedicated to the propagation of misery … No power, no freedom, no responsibility, ever, in all our history… . [T]he possession of [the woman] felt like a right.”

But to return to the earlier question of the narrator’s voice. Certainly the novel has flashes of the kind of dark humor familiar to much Soviet-era art. “What the body is doing,” the narrator wryly says at one point, “in camp, is slowly eating itself; my brother was thicker now in the chest and shoulders, but at five foot three he remained a lenten meal.”

Then there is an earlier encounter (pre-gulag) with Zoya in Moscow: “We sat around in our overcoats. There was no heat and no light. There was no food and no drink. We had, I remember, a paper bagful of a nameless orange tea, but no water. The tea turned out to be carrot peel. So we ate it.”

As sharply fatalistic (and, in some sense, Russian) as this prose is, I am unconvinced by the voice elsewhere; for much of the novel, it is unmistakably English and often inauthentic. Why does the narrator refer to his half-brother as “Lev,” rather than the familiar “Lyova,” which every Russian would use?

It is almost as if Mr. Amis is aware of the authenticity problem when he has his narrator admit: “I must just say that it does feel consistently euphemistic — telling my story in English, and in old-style English English, what’s more. My story would be even worse in Russian. For it is truly a tale of gutturals and nasals and whistling sibilants.”

The very English telling creates an unfortunate distance between the narrator and the historical events and personal tragedies he recounts. We’re never quite sure that he hasn’t gleaned the facts of his narrative from newspaper clippings and history texts, rather than from experience. This is unfortunate. For though “House of Meetings” might haunt us, it ultimately fails to make us believe — and worse, I think, to move us.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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