Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The heart of darkness: Review of Martin Amis, House of Meetings

Amis is unafraid of the big issues. His obsession with politics, totalitarianism and corporate evil is sometimes interpreted as a bid for greatness, for respect; more likely it arises from a lively moral sense, triggered partly by concern for his burgeoning family, and partly from a feeling that in comparison to modern history the domestic arrangements of middle class Londoners are trivial as a topic.

House of Meetings takes Amis back to Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, and the corrosive effects of Stalin on his subjects. Unlike the broad factual account given in the earlier Koba the Dread, here he provides a narrative of a single family's experience as they attempt to live ordinary lives while being bent out of shape by the demands of the state. The anonymous memoirist who tells the story is met first as an angry dying man, touring the ruins of the Arctic labour camp in which he had been imprisoned; he writes a letter to his stepdaughter explaining his life, describing his loss of conscience. There follows a vivid description of life and death in the Gulag of the 1940s, whence he had been sent following the War, in which he had raped and fought his way into Germany. His uneasy accommodation with camp life is then disturbed by the arrival of his half-brother, Lev, and the news that Lev has married Zoya, a Jewess they both had pursued in their youth. The brothers fight to survive the camp as its regime changes following the death of Stalin, culminating in the provision for conjugal visits in the House of Meetings. Lev's assignation with Zoya leaves his spirit broken, and much of the rest of the book comprises speculation as to the cause. They are eventually released and find themselves marginalised under the Brezhnev regime; Lev chooses moral rectitude and material squalor; the memoirist material wealth, travel, and a series of unsatisfactory love affairs, culminating in the post-glasnost torpor of a society that believes so little in its future that people are reluctant to have children.

Thus the story is that of the nation, in microcosm. In Koba the Dread, Amis took care to show that Stalin was merely the most extreme and arbitrary tyrant produced by October: here, it would appear that Stalin was the sole cause of all woe. It was Stalin's camps that denatured his citizens, rendered them fearful, untrustworthy, and brutal. Nevertheless, Amis argues that the danger from the Russians is different in kind, not scale, from that of present-day Islamists, as represented here by the Chechen attack on School No. 1.

A conventional narrative structure would expose the unbalanced nature of the treatment: the memoirist's shifts in time and focus, and the giving and withholding of confidences, force the reader to grant him a hearing. They do, however, lead to a sense of anticlimax, since the impact of the camp section leaves the post-release saga as a minor addendum, echoing the exhaustion of the brothers. The plot is almost absurdly melodramatic, with its twins, death-bed confessions, and letters from the dead.

This would matter less is the characterisation of the memoirist was clearer. The descriptive style throughout is vintage Amis: clear, startling, elegant, poetic (contact with English culture is unconvincingly explained by the plot). The tension between this tone and his actions is an unresolved issue: we are perhaps half convinced by the evocation of what it feels like to kill, in the wild days when he takes the breakdown in order in the camp to murder the hated informers; but we are unconvinced by the interior view of the rapist, at either end of his life.

Amis expects his readers to know a lot of Russian history; he provides footnotes to identify Russian presidents, referred to by the memoirist by unfamiliar names, but does not elucidate the political developments for those unversed in the country's tragic arc.

But to write an encycopledic narrative would have taken a book much bigger than these 200 pages, which share with the short stories of Heavy Water an inexplicable luminosity, a subtle charge that leaves them resonating in your mind long after you have finished. A similar effect is derived from reading Time's Arrow, and of all Amis's works, it is that first-person narrative, of the other great European tragedy, which is closest in tone to this. A serious book for serious times.

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