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Martin Amis: House of Meetings (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Yellow Dog was at least decisive. Despite the stylish, persuasive attempts by the big guns (Janis Bellow, et al) to paper over the cracks of Night Train, by 2003 Amis had lost it. Yellow Dog was a litany of embarrassments: the crudity of the tabloid editorial meetings, the desperate royal lesbian subplot, the minimal effort gangster memoirs; the reader cringed with each turn of the page. Clearly, Amis was struggling against writer's block; trying too hard to recapture former glories through weak re-treads of earlier themes and characters, all of which had been done better, before. And whilst the non-fiction (particularly War Against Cliché and Experience) remained superb, the long feared crisis in his fiction had arrived. This was doubling galling for the Amis fan: not only was our man struggling, but his rivals, particularly McEwan with Saturday and Atonement, were on peak form; Booker nominations by default. In a Golden Age for British Literature, the king had premature senility.
House of Meetings, a short novella weighing it at 190 or so pages, crept out in October of 2006 without the usual anti-fanfare: no stories about huge advances, expensive dental work, no titbits about a reshuffling of spouse and/or agent; no hastily arranged series of newspaper interviews to defend the master's oeuvre. Well, so much the better, because House of Meetings is a return to form. If Stalin was right and "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic", then House of Meetings is a tragedy. The plot is woven around a love triangle, with Russia, 1941 to 2001, Barborossa to Ossetia, as the background. Two bothers fall in love with the same woman. The elder, our narrator, had the misfortune to be old enough to be conscripted in World War 2, and, as was the way of the Red Army, raped his way across East Germany in 1944-5. The younger, Lev, is kind and rebellious, rebellious in an internal sense, in that he has the strength not to betray his peacenik principles. The girl, Zoya, is Jewish, independent and sexually liberated. (This character seems to be based on the story of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, which is told in Koba the Dread (pp 189-190).) Lev gets the girl. The narrator gets a bad case of unrequited "love". Both brothers are arrested and sent to work camps. They survive the camps but Lev is broken, not by the brutality of the regime, but by a conjugal visit from Zoya in the "House of Meetings" after which he realises he has lost his capacity "to play", the visit is a consummated but joyless affair. The narrator, the killer, the rapist, has the strength to survive, in that he can cope with, and even thrive in the appalling mess that Russia became post-Stalin and post-Communism. And Amis is particularly strong in ramming home that post-Communist Russia is as bad as it ever was.
The plot, then, is a success, and so are the characters, which are compromised and complex. Amis's style is successfully muted here; the prose is shorn of the egregious flourishes attempted by Yellow Dog, and crucially, his sense of humour - badly awry in Yellow Dog - is subdued.
This is a fine novel. The reader will read deeply and quickly. I have reservations about the Soviet Union as a theme: it is as if Amis is borrowing this from those writers that were there in order to deal with his own failure to write about Blair's Britain. My own view is that Amis is second only to Blair in exaggerating the so-called "terrorist threat", that he has done this in a desperate search for a theme, and it has been to the detriment of his writing. House of Meetings, then, is a sabbatical; a term spent in the lies and paranoia of the Soviet Gulag. Martin Amis should come home and write about the lies and paranoia of Blair's Britain.
Chris Sampson, January 2007
Picture 2: Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, hung by the German Army at the siege of Moscow in 1941. "Her face expresses preternatural self-sufficiency, and is an entirely effortless superiority to her murderers and mutilators. It is the face of another world, another cosmos. She was eighteen".
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