House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
(Knopf, 256 pages, $23)
After Martin Amis, the renowned but polarizing English writer, tackled the issue of Stalinism and its moral legacy in his non-fiction work Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, it was only a matter of time before the same historical and emotional terrain was trod in novelistic form. This has happened in House of Meetings, in which depictions of the personal and political consequences of the Gulag slave archipelago combine to form a work of unsettling moral power. House of Meetings is at its core the story of a love triangle (an “isosceles,” Amis tells us, “it certainly comes to a sharp point”) involving two brothers and a Jewish girl in a post-WWII Moscow on the verge of a pogrom. But Amis’s latest offering is also a profoundly political work, concerned with the impact of Communism on today’s Russia, both on the level of the individual and the state. As such, Amis is a worthy heir of a long tradition of Western eyes trained on Russia.
Russia has always had the power to alternately enthrall and terrify outside observers. As far back as 1588, Giles Fletcher, one of the first English envoys to Moscow, reported back to London on the “baffling, beautiful, and bizarre” country and remarked on the unparalleled autocratic nature of the tsarist regime. In 1843, the French Marquis de Custine’s Letters from Russia told of a nation
where there is no freedom, there is no soul and no truth. Russia is a lifeless corpse, a colossus surviving in its head while all its limbs, equally deprived of strength, wither and perish….Russia is a tightly sealed boiler on a mounting fire: I fear an explosion.
The novelist Joseph Conrad, born in Polish Russia, explored similar themes in his novel Under Western Eyes, and after the Revolution noted that
The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first mean to hand, in the strange conviction that a fundamental change of hearts must follow the downfall of any given human institutions.
It is certainly platitudinous to say that in Russia the more things change, the more they stay the same, but that makes it no less true. Mutatis mutandis, Amis is exploring the same issues that Custine and Conrad were in previous centuries, and Amis is no doubt aware of this — House of Meetings features at least seven references to Under Western Eyes or Joseph Conrad.
Amis’s novel, which takes the form of a Russian man in his late eighties writing a letter to his American-born daughter, begins and ends with the assertion that his country is dying. Russia, after all, has a new cross to bear. On the narrator’s computer is the “Russian cross,” “the graph with its two crinkly lines intersecting, one pink, one blue. The birth rate, the death rate.” Here, Amis channels Mark Steyn when he writes that “On the larger scale, destiny is demographics; and demographics is a monster.”
Our un-named narrator has returned to Russia, from which he emigrated in the 1980s, to see the slave camp in which he was interned in the Forties and Fifties. On the “Gulag Tour,” he boards a river boat (the Georgi Zhukov) which becomes a metaphor for contemporary Russia:
Below the waterline, where the staff and crew slumber and carouse, the ship is of course a fetid ruin — but look at the dining room, with its honey-gold drapes, its brothelly red velvets. And our load is light. I have a four-berth cabin all to myself. The Gulag Tour, so the purser tells me, never quite caught on…Moscow is impressive — grimly fantastic on its pelf. And Petersburg, too, no doubt, after its billion-dollar birthday: a tercentenary for the slave-built city “stolen from the sea.” It’s everywhere else that is now below the waterline.
The Gulag Tour takes our narrator to the Arctic Circle, far from the glitzy cultural and political capitals of Russia. Here, below the waterline, he views his old camp, tours the run-down city of Dudinka, keeps abreast of the ongoing siege at a certain middle school in Beslan, North Ossetia, and continues writing his memoirs for his daughter.
Amis’s prose is impeccable as always. Describing the perimeter defenses of his work camp, the narrator writes of
The watchtowers — their averted searchlights and their domes like army helmets with a spray of gun barrels set under the peak, at right angles, like scurvied teeth…
The protagonist himself is a classic Amis literary construction: a tormented Soviet infantryman who raped his way across Eastern Europe before being sent to a work camp, whereupon he resorts to brutal measures to stay alive, killing three individuals. After his release he becomes an engineer, but the moral consequences of his past are profound. “Whatever the war did,” the old man writes, “camp trapped it inside you.” Thus he, like the rest of Russia, became morally deformed. “I think there must have been a developmental requirement that Russia simply failed to meet,” he opines. “Russia learned how to crawl, and she learned how to run. But she never learned how to walk.”
House of Meetings is not devoid of flaws. The narrative is disrupted by didactic asides and explanatory footnotes for references to historical personages. Amis tries to justify these by casting his narrator as a man with “a weakness for pedagogy,” and certainly the information will be of great service to readers who are not well versed in Russian history, but the effect can occasionally seem clumsy. Additionally, Amis’s novel is very much the product of his research for Koba the Dread, and many passages are clearly informed by secondary material. Readers familiar with Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History will often find themselves experiencing deja vu. Likewise the narrator’s trip to Dudinsk suggests a similar trip made by the journalist Andrew Meier in his Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall. (Amis thanks both Appelbaum and Meier in the Acknowledgements.) There is no shame in this, of course, and Amis’s talent as a prose stylist outweighs the largely derivative nature of his raw material. As a result, the balance sheet for House of Meetings ends largely in credit to Amis.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its brazen geopolitical posturing and obvious domestic insecurity, is as baffling to outsiders as it was at the time of the Elizabethan Giles Fletcher’s mission, as combustible as it was to Custine, and as ferocious as Conrad described. Amis joins his predecessors in the perspicacity of his Western eyes. Although his interest in the catastrophic moral and social effects of Stalinism may seem belated to many, it has certainly borne fruit in his treatment of contemporary Russia. Amis’ conclusion, delivered to us via his octogenarian narrator, is that “The conscience, I suspect, is a vital organ. And when it goes, you go.” Armed with this seemingly simple aphorism, we may go a long way in understanding Russia’s current predicament (both above and below the waterline), and a great deal more besides.