Friday, February 23, 2007

The House of Meetings

Martin Amis is larger than life. Controversies seem to follow in his wake, whatever he’s up to. Not too long ago there were his remarks about Islamic extremism (“horrorism”). Recently The Guardian newspaper referred to him in passing as "Britain's greatest living author . . .", which caused a ruckus in the blogosphere. The Guardian published a follow-up today, in which Stephen Moss asks, if not Amis, then “Who is the greatest of them all? Moss puts forward Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, V.S. Naipaul and Doris Lessing as his top four. But he weasels out in the end, refusing to choose one, saying “. . . don't be silly: that really is up to posterity”. I’d put Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell on my own list (in that order!)

But anyway, Amis has a new book novel out, The House of Meetings, which has received the usual divergent reviews from critics. On Metacritic these reviews range from “Outstanding” raves like The Economist:

“Martin Amis has suddenly - and unexpectedly, even to his publishers - turned in a work of real worth, a novel that not so much makes the spine tingle as the heart race at its passion and richness...A singular, unimpeachable triumph.”

All the way down to outright trashes, like Tim Martin’s review in The Independent:

“... comes to read like a wicked parody of the Amis style.”

There’s much Amis-animus out there. No doubt he may well be an arrogant jerk. A recent interview in The Independent makes that clear. But there is no denying Amis is unfailingly interesting, even if one eventually throws his books against a wall. Money and London Fields remain stand-out reads for me.

The House of Meetings is a novel about the Soviet gulag, narrated from the present-day by a survivor. Clearly Amis is still in thrall to the historical sources that brought about his memoir/history, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Koba made the point that the crimes of communism were horrific, killing millions, yet the criminals seem forgiven or forgotten by the world in a way that the perpetrators of the Holocaust have not.

Robert Conquest brought the crimes of Stalinism into the light with his classic 1968 book of history, The Great Terror [re-issued in 1991]. But it wasn’t until the 1972 publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s oral history, The Gulag Archipelago, that the Gulag really entered the West’s consciousness. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the floodgate of Eastern Bloc archives. This new historical information brought about the astonishing 1999 compendium of the crimes of communism, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. With this new archival access, Anne Applebaum was able to write the excellent, quite readable Gulag: A History.

But the Gulag and other crimes like the Ukrainian Famine/Genocide of 1932-3 still have never captured the popular imagination. As Anne Applebaum notes in Gulag, intellectually people know what happened in the Soviet Union, but “the crimes of Stalin simply don’t inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler”. Perhaps The House of Meetings is an attempt by Amis to bring a human face to the victims of communism, much like many classic works have done for the Holocaust:



Graphic Novel

There are some great books from Soviet crimes, but the list is pretty small:


Know any others? In English? Please leave a comment if you have suggestions!


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