Martin Amis's new novel is brilliant and insightful, but offers little news to those versed in the 20th century's first-hand accounts of atrocityby Tom Chatfield / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
House of Meetings by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape, £15.99)
In 2002, Martin Amis gave us Koba the Dread, a non-fictional account of Stalin’s Russia which was slated by, among others, Orlando Figes and Christopher Hitchens for its strategy of personalisation: Amis’s insistent relation of the Soviet experiment and its horrors to his own life. “I find myself embarrassed almost every day,” Hitchens commented, “at the thought of an actual gulag survivor reading this… and finding his or her experience reduced to a sub-Leavisite boys’ tiff.” Four years later, in House of Meetings, Amis has gone one step further and himself created that gulag survivor. This is late Amis, his tenth novel, and it is a work at war on every page with Leavisite cosiness.
House of Meetings is a posthumous address, narrated by a nameless 86-year-old Russian to his African-American stepdaughter. It is 2004 and, as the Beslan school siege and massacre unfolds elsewhere, our narrator is travelling up the Yenisei river into Siberia on “the gulag tour” (it “never quite caught on,” the purser remarks) for a final glimpse of his past. Once finished, he will commit (assisted) suicide. Age speaks to youth—the 20th century to the 21st—but not in decorous tones. This is a wicked, wild old man, “huge and shaggy,” raging against his failing powers, goading his audience into judgement. His story begins with his return from the second world war to Moscow at the age of 25: a handsome, decorated war hero fresh from raping his way across the ruins of Germany. Soon, both our narrator and his squat, stammering half-brother Lev have fallen in love with Zoya, a beautiful Jewess, anomalous in Soviet Moscow both for her race and her free-spiritedness. The brothers are soon arrested as “intelligents” and sent to a vast labour camp at Norlag, but it is Lev who has won Zoya’s heart, and who has secretly married her before his arrest. Then there is the meat of the novel: their decade of hard labour, punctuated in 1956 by the titular event—the visit to the “House of Meetings,” a shack in the camp reserved for conjugal visits in which Lev sees his wife for the first time since their marriage. In 1957, the brothers are released, and thereafter their lives follow diverging trajectories. Our narrator, the violent survivor, gradually achieves wealth and influence; Lev slides deeper and deeper into squalor and poverty…