book review: House of Meetings

The book Koba The Dread is the equivalent of a well-articulated argumentative friend getting both increasingly louder and persistent in arguing their views. If Koba was a polemic on the crimes of Stalin and Lenin then Martin Amis uses another approach with House of Meetings.

Using a narrator who is a living embodiment of the horror that the Russian state inflicted on its own people the central figure never learns how to love. He learns how to lust and rape serving in the Red Army in the Second World War and he learns how to be jealous wasting away his hours in the camps.

Who is to blame for his anger and aggression? The state and its head that rule with hatred and establish a system of punishment and servitude. There seem to be two choices an individual faces – either to go with the flow and become aggressive or to try and take a Ghandi type approach and show that there is such a thing as pacifism and resistance. There is no option to contest innocence because no one is listening or looking to defend something that constitutionally does not exist.

In the prison camp the narrator, who is telling his life story top his daughter through flashbacks, recalls the time his brother arrived and tried to resist the system with a one-man protest that ultimately won him few admirers. Things changed when the House of Meetings was built and his brother became the hardest worker in order to win the prize of spending one night with his wife.

The jealousy that the other brother felt never went away and even after his brother died and he had raped the woman who many years earlier had gone to the house of meetings it doesn’t satisfy his yearning.

He sails down the river on a gulag tour to rediscover the House of Meetings and his own past. He is armed with an unread letter from his brother that he plans to read on his deathbed and as he nears the end he reads through an almost prophetic tale depicting the dangers of anger and lust. His brother accepts that his approach also failed because he died inside but the alternative to kill and snarl your way through was worse.

As the end comes the lessons that are passed from father and daughter are the same from the concluding arguments in Koba the Dread. A society led by people who were prepared to use terror, slavery, famine and death as weapons against their own people create monsters. At each level in society – in this case the camps – there are victims that reflect back the society that created them.

The moral of this story seems to be that declining population rates twinned with the apparent victory of the West have been both internal and external pressures that have highlighted the failure of Stalin and company.

Version read – Jonathan Cape hardback

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