No Laughing Matter: Martin Amis takes on the Gulag

No Laughing Matter: Martin Amis takes on the Gulag

House of Meetings by Martin Amis

House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Knopf, 2007 256 pp $23

MARTIN AMIS’S Koba the Dread was an articulate, postmillennial reminder of the twentieth century’s second, more silent, holocaust and a study of its maniacal perpetrator: Joseph Stalin. The book argued that one of the differential qualities between Nazi and Communist terror was humor. German fascism, with its industrially efficient genocide, was cold and pitiless; yet “laughter intransigently refuses to absent itself” from the protracted, haphazard violence of Bolshevism.

With this in mind, one expects House of Meetings, Martin Amis’s own Gulag novel, to make good on his contention. But this book doesn’t make you laugh. Despite lithe, buoyant prose and unencumbered realism (a first for Amis in years), the novel is sunk by clumsy self-consciousness and inanimate characters.

Told in epistolary monologue, House of Meetings unravels the tortuous guilt of a Gulag survivor as he travels by boat to the eastern reaches of Russia. Like Time’s Arrow, Amis’s other prison camp tale, this Conradian voyage is into the known, the remembered; it is the shadows of one’s past—not one’s future—that provide anxiety.

Our narrator begins by explaining how he got to the slave camp. A decorated Red Army combatant in the Second World War (“I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany”), he returns to food-starved Moscow only to find that he’s incapable of consummating his love for a shapely, Jewish neighbor named Zoya.

While he struggles with his virility, the ever-turning wheels of totalitarian paranoia—“they arrest by quota”—get him sent to Siberia. Right behind him is his stuttering, spectacled half-brother, Lev—an “Acmeist and Mandelstamian”—who brings news of his marriage to Zoya. Despite her absence, the two brothers become enmeshed in a “brutally scalene” love triangle; while our narrator resides on the short side, Lev and Zoya exchange letters and even arrange a conjugal visit in the “House of Meetings.”

House of Meetings certainly conjures the grisly inhumanity of Stalin’s slave camp: the interminable hunger, the claustrophobic imprisonment, the degradation of mindless labor, the acquiescence to violence and brutality. However, the novel’s evocation has a specious tone, its moments of poignancy tainted by Amis’s overreaching ambitions. In the end, what might have rescued the novel is the levity promised in Koba—a sensitive riff on the prison camp genre. Instead, we get Solzhenitsyn knockoff.

AMIS’S OUEVRE CAN be broken into two uneven halves: the funny and the serious. The former are extroverted urban satires filled with self-absorbed, gentile Woody Allens. Not much is needed to warm us to “medium-length, arseless” Charles Highway of The Rachel Papers, but Amis wisely mitigates the disagreeable narcissists o...