Gulag days

Martin Amis’s Soviet sojourn
By JAMES PARKER  |  January 17, 2007

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MONEY’S WORTH: House of Meetings is the consummation of Amis’s years-long interest in Russian darkness.
For a writer, what a complicated pleasure it is to read Martin Amis — complicated, that is, by thrills of envy, larcenous surges, and bleak shafts of professional despair. Phrase for phrase, nobody should be this good.

Personally I’ve always resented his dominion over the word “twang.” As in “sour, twanging afternoon light,” or “It was a dream script, wonderfully coherent, with oodles of rhythm and twang.” And just try to better this as a description of a boy with a bad stammer: “First, the tensing, the momentary glint of self-hatred, then the little nose went up and the fight began.” I’ll repeat, and italicize: “the momentary glint of self-hatred.” Even John Updike in his definitive stutter memoir “Getting the Words Out” never caught so keenly that first unhappy recoil into muteness.

The above line comes from Amis’s new novel, House of Meetings, and the stammerer in question is the narrator’s brother, Lev. The pair spend most of the book scuffling for survival in a Stalin-era Soviet slave-labor camp called Norlag. Amis is getting his money’s worth, you might say, from all the research he did for 2002’s Koba the Dread, his rather strange non-fiction book about the Stalinist terror. Fortunately, we the readership are getting our money’s worth too, because House of Meetings is the successful fictional consummation of Amis’s years-long interest in Russian darkness, Russian atrocity. The narrator, now crusty with age and bad habits, swaying down the Yenisei river in a tourist steamer called the Georgi Zhukov, is recalling his life for the benefit of his daughter in America: the years of rapine with the Red Army; the gulag years among the brutes, bitches, pigs, snakes, and shit eaters; the years (served like a concurrently running sentence) in which he yearned and lusted after his brother’s wife, the incredible Zoya. “When she walked, everything swayed. When she laughed, everything shook. When she sneezed — you felt that absolutely anything might happen.”

Punctually denounced as Fascists after the Second World War, the brothers are packed off to Norlag, there to get to know themselves, and each other, a little bit better. Lev is literary, awkward, non-conformist, heroic, eschewing the violence that is the currency of gulag life. The narrator on the other hand, a decorated warrior of the Eastern Front, gets right into it. Here he is, fresh from his second in-camp homicide: “Badged with blood, and panting like a dog that has run all day, I pushed past Lev at the entrance to the latrine; I slapped my raised forearm against the wall and dropped my head on it, and with the other hand I clawed at the string round my waist, then emptied my bladder with gross copiousness and (I was told) a snarl of gratitude.”

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