Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
House of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Hardcover, 256pages, $39.95rrp
Martin Amis’ prose is a distinctive combination of droll black humour mingled with near purple theatrics. It’s acerbic and heady all at once. His characters deal with situations that concern everyone: thwarted love, identity and self-worth, but always amidst a grand setting of transition, whether that be a scene of historic atrocity such as the Holocaust or a brain damaging, personality-changing head blow. In his latest novel, House of Meetings, the setting takes us deep into a Soviet Gulag camp.
The novel is told in epistolary flashback: an extended letter written by the narrator to his stepdaughter Venus. The narrator is, in part, aboard the Georgi Zhukov, on the Yenisei River in the Arctic Circle – a fancy cruiser near the Gulag the narrator was interned in. As his body travels around the Siberian wasteland of his old labour camp, his mind travels back in time to his imprisonment. The reader is put in the role of the healthy American stepdaughter; an unwilling confidante and participant in the events which are conveyed through the letter. We are alluded to, winked at, and made to feel pampered, and “burnished” in the face of the dying, and depraved.
Venus’ name reminds us that, despite the pain and atrocities the novel doesn’t shy from recounting, the subject of this book is love – a point made by the narrator from the first page. His unrequited love for the beautiful Zoya provides the core of this book. Although as a character, Zoya remains a caricature—shaped like Betty Boop, and almost inarticulate next to the narrator—she provides a catalyst for the beautifully depicted love/hate relationship between the two brothers. The younger, uglier (half) brother is Lev, the poet who comes to the same labour camp, already married to Zoya.
As with many other of Amis’ novels, the protagonist is far from pristine. Between self-deprecation and aggrandisement, he describes an often criminally unpleasant life, but we nevertheless come to understand him. There is an odd charm in his struggle to send off his last defining email and cope with an unopened revelation from his brother which will finally reveal the true nature of his past to him. Venus represents not just love, but life, health, the West. The narrator is Russia: corrupt, and withered. His farewell isn’t only to his stepdaughter, but also to life, as he finds himself dying, and is glad of it. Amidst the bravado is sorrow. The narrator laments the loss of his country, his love, and his life. These contradictions drive the narrative forward. The notion that this lengthy confession covering about 60 years, should be delivered in the casual format of email adds irony.
Both the narrator’s and Lev’s feelings for Zoya are fuelled by the feelings the brothers have for one another. There is sibling rivalry, and protectiveness too, amidst the horrors of the camp, and afterwards. The intensity of Amis’ camp descriptions provide a backdrop for the plot which involves Lev’s stubborn pacifism, and the power that the memory of Zoya exerts over the brothers. Throughout the novel, metaphors are strikingly original and powerful: “All night I walked and crawled across a landscape overlaid with grit, a desert where each grain of sand, at some point or other, would have its time between my teeth.” (105) The eloquence always drives plot or characterisation, remaining subtle, even with recurring images like the “Wild Dogs of Predposylov” that haunt him, or the anthropomorphism in his extended metaphors. As the plot moves away from the gulag and into the post-prison relationship between the brothers, Lev becomes frailer and less successful. He loses Zoya and re-marries, suffering tragedy and disintegration, while the narrator grows wealthy, and tries to confront his demons back “home”.
There is a ring of truth and emotive power in the historical veracity of House of Meeting’s setting. Amis has done his research well, and claims that an English author can’t really write about Russia don’t do justice to the deep sense of history and personal involvement that underpin this book. But House of Meetings really isn’t meant to be a realistic picture of life in the Soviet gulag. For that, Amis’ Koba the Dread provides a more literal trip into the atrocities of this period, which Amis makes clear is poorly understood in the West. Instead House of Meetings uses the setting to explore character and what is left when our carefully constructed roles in life are stripped away. Amis has every claim to being a master of that kind of exploration. In House of Meetings he has created an exciting novel, full of pathos that transcends the morality of nonfiction. It is a celebration of the beauty and horror of the human character in all of its frailties, and because of, rather than in spite of, contradiction.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast www.blogtalkradio.com/compulsivereader.