Category: Martin Amis

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

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

House of Meetings – post IV

The book ends with the narrator screwed up in rage and waiting for death to come in the form of a syringe injected into the arm. He reads the letter that his brother had written to him before he died.

In that letter the true nature of the brothers are exposed. Both are destroyed by the state but one reacts by seeking solace in pacifism while the narrator resorts to violence. That violence was not only set down by his experience, as a rapist in the Second World War but is almost ingrained in his genes.

He seeks solace at the end by the idea that those genes are running into the sand because the Russian population is in terminal decline.

“I’m only doing what Russia is doing. And she tried it once before. Russia tired to kill itself in the 1930s, after its first decade of [Stalin]. He was already a cadaver, millionaire about ten times over, even before the Terror. But he did need Russians to go on producing Russian. And they stopped. After the starling census of 1936, the state jolted into action: crash kindergartenisation, maternity medals, a resolemnised marriage ceremony, the legalisation of inheritance, and the criminalisation of abortion. It was a general strike, of a kind; and the state broke it. What will the state do now?”

A review will follow soon…

House of Meetings – post III

Once a rapist always a rapist? It seems that the narrator is so determined not only to shock his daughter, to whom this book is a confession, but also himself. Left alone with his brother’s ex-wife, who he has coveted all his adult life he ends up raping her. That act leads to her suicide and it also pretty well puts a cap on a fateful life that has been destroyed by the state. The narrator might have outlived his brother, sister and his ex-sister-in-law but he is a dead man walking in a living hell of memories and the brutality of Russia.

A constant thread that pops up throughout the book is the episode of the school that was under siege with Chechen gunmen holding hundreds of school children hostage. This is seen as something that ended in a brutal way that reveals the underlying hatred the state has for its own people. But also there are suggestions it is all contrived by the state to fuel the paranoia about enemies within.

Presumably that story will be played out to climax with the last few moments of the narrator who seems to be nearing the end. He holds onto a letter that he promised to read before he died – presumably from his brother or the woman he raped – but in terms of redemption it is hard to see where any could come from – surely the metaphor for the Soviet system.

Last chunk tomorrow…

House of Meetings – post II

I didn’t manage to read a great deal of this book today. Part of that was because there is a tremendous difference between this and Powell. This is a book that has a central character that is working overtime trying to make you dislike him. At every opportunity when he could show some humanity to his brother in the camp he fails to do so.

Even after several years and all of the hardship he harbours nothing but jealously for his brother who is able to meet his wife in the House of Meetings for a night of passion in return for backbreaking work.

Even when the flashbacks stop and the narrative places the craggy old prisoner in a modern context he is still trying his hardest to provoke hateful reactions. There is real bile fuelling this book and having read Koba the Dread you sense the idea is to make the argument about the grotesque nature of the system by creating a character that is a living embodiment of everything that Amis hates about Stalinism.

More tomorrow…

House of Meetings – post I

Having read Road to Calvary it seemed like a small leap to The House of Meetings by Martin Amis. This is a memoir of a survivor of the gulag system and written as a testament from a father to a daughter.

The man telling the story seems determined to inspire some sort of disgust in his daughter as he talks about raping his way across German in the second world war and the jealously he harboured for his brother’s wife. In an ironical way it is this later emotion that causes more problems.

The narrator’s brother turns up at the camp and although they have each other the closeness of a family member seems to provoke odd feelings in the narrator. The description of the life of the camp is seen through his brother’s eyes and his brother’s experience. The reasons for the narrator’s own imprisonment is sketched in between showing life in the gulag from a new entrants point of view.

There are flash forwards to when the narrator is taking a gulag tour in post communist times but this is about the dark places that a human being can be forced to go to and so there is probably worse to come.

More soon…

book of books – Koba the Dread

This is an angry book by a very well read Martin Amis who uses his knowledge to challenge communist supporters both living and dead. It starts by questioning why his own father has communist sympathies wen there was easily enough information around to reveal the true monstrous nature of Stalin’s regime. As a result it keeps a memoir type feel but there is also a history lesson being given here by a teacher that is positive he is right and that intends drilling the facts into you until you nod in agreement.

Plot summary
Given the popularity of Stalin’s regime amongst the liberal left in the 1930s, when the Gulag was well into its terrible stride and the show trials and red army purges had been publicised in the West Amis has to ask how anyone could sympathise with the Russian regime. He recalls how his father had a communist soft spot for around 12 years and how he used to have interesting conversations with anti communists including friends who were historians. Martin Amis was to mimic those debates with his own generation, particularly Christopher Hitchens. But the real story here is the constant drumming in of the facts about the show trials, horrors of the Gulag and the scant regard for human life not just felt by Stalin but also by Lenin, who some of the liberals also held up as a great role model. It ends with the argument having been proved by the details that have come out since the death of Stalin and the breaking down of communism but there still continues to be a lingering determination by some to use the phrase comrade and glorify the past.

Is it well written?
Most history books are dry, fail to get off the fence until the conclusion and rarely if ever make it personal. This book does all three and shows that it can be done. At the time of its publication I recall seeing Amis interviewed by people quite happy to take a pop at the way this book had been written along with the content. But you have to doff your cap to him he has done his research, throws quotes galore at you and is quite capable of defending his corner. It is a horrifying read because of the facts and figures but the possibility of ending by recalling his own sisters death and talking about his daughter shows just how well the memoir and the historical have been combined.

Should it be read?
As an example of how wider history can weave into family histories this is a great example that deserves to be consumed. As a book showing just how history can rouse anger this is one of the most enjoyable I have ever come across. But the problem is that is comes with the name Amis on the cover and like all major brands people either like him or loathe him. If you can remain indifferent, if that is possible, and put to one side the occasional arrogance and name dropping, then this is a solid attack on Russian sympathisers for a regime that consigned millions to their deaths.

Summary
Whether it’s twenty million or more there can be no doubt that Stalin was a monster.