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Executioner Songs

As he travels on a rackety cruise-ship up the Yenisei River from Krasnoyarsk and across the Arctic Circle to Predposylov, a fictional city based on Norilsk,6 the narrator broods upon the past, and in particular on his hopeless love for Zoya, the Jewish beauty, now long dead, who spurned him and married his brother. It is the beginning of September 2004, and news is coming in of the Beslan atrocity, in which Chechen terrorists took over a school in North Ossetia and resisted a three-day siege which ended with the deaths of 344 civilians, 186 of them children. For the narrator, then, present and past horrors play against each other in frightful counterpoint. He broods on the plight of the children in the school:

They are parched, starved, stifled, filthy, terrified—but there is more. Outside, the putrefying bodies of the people killed on the first day are being eaten by dogs. And if the captives can smell it, if the captives can hear it, the sounds of the carrion dogs of North Ossetia eating their fathers, then all five senses are attended to, and the Russian totality is emplaced. Nothing for it now. Their situation cannot be worsened. Only death can worsen it.

He has already quoted “an old Kremlin hand”—in fact it was Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Russian prime minister and now a billionaire oligarch—saying “We wanted the best, but it turned out as always.” Chernomyrdin was referring to a disastrous episode in the Kremlin’s attempts at economic reform that he oversaw in the early 1990s, and his statement has become a popular sardonic proverb among Russians. “They didn’t want the best, or so every Russian believes,” Amis’s narrator bitterly insists of the Russian government, and also, by implication, of the Russian people in general. “They wanted what they got. They wanted the worst.” And surely Beslan was, if not the worst, then very nearly: “It is not given to many—the chance to shoot children in the back as they swerve in their underwear past rotting corpses.”

House of Meetings, though fiction, is a companion volume to Koba the Dread, and that book could profitably be read in tandem with this later one, for Stalin is the reigning fiend here, too. Koba is Amis’s furious, Swiftian account of the terror campaigns in the USSR from the 1920s through the 1950s, and, specifically, a denunciation of Stalin, the “Koba” of the title. The book when it was published provoked some mutterings regarding the weakness of its scholarship—even though Amis had made no claim to being a scholar—and what was seen as his naiveté in taking on such a subject in such a manner. Yet the book is a powerful and not untimely reminder of what Lenin and Stalin and their henchmen between them did to their enormous, vulnerable, and tragic country. Taking much of its inspiration as well as its tone of moral outrage from the work of Robert Conquest,7 it is in large part a challenge and a rebuke to liberal and left-wing Westerners, including, indeed, the young Kingsley Amis, who Amis fils believes failed for too many years to condemn the horrors of successive Soviet regimes and refused to place Stalin in that same circle of Hell already occupied by Hitler.

It is one of the characteristics of a novelist that nothing is wasted on him, nor does he let anything go to waste. Amis tells us that he read a shelfful of books in preparation for the writing of Koba the Dread; many of the same books inform House of Meetings. Indeed, the title itself is taken from the heading of a subchapter in Anne Applebaum’s definitive Gulag: A History, in which she writes of the visits to prisoners that relatives would sometimes be allowed to pay. Wives would travel thousands of miles, by train, by hitching rides, and finally on foot, to spend a day with their husbands at a designated “House of Meetings” on the edge of the prison camp. One survivor described such a house, with its cotton curtains, its window boxes of flowers, its two neatly made beds:

There was even a lampshade over the electric-light bulb. What more could a prisoner, who had lived for years on a common bunk in a dirty barrack, desire of this model petit bourgeois dwelling? Our dreams of life at liberty were based on that room.8

The same witness, the Polish novelist Gustav Herling, noted that such meetings often went disastrously wrong, with the men despairing of their sexual competence after years of privation (Amis’s narrator recalls that his relationship with his “ladyfriend” at the camp, which held male and female prisoners, was, like many camp romances, platonic: “The only impulse resembling desire that Tanya awoke in me was an evanescent urge to eat her shirt buttons, which were made from pellets of chewed bread”). The wives, for their part, were exhausted from weeks of travel and, in some cases, distracted and guilt-ridden by the fact that what they had come for was not a romantic tryst, but to ask for a divorce in order to break the damaging link to a political prisoner, which made it hard to find work and get housing back home. “I came to the conclusion,” Herling wrote, “that if hope can often be the only meaning left in life, then its realization may sometimes be an unbearable torment.” Possibly it was this sentence that gave Martin Amis the inspiration for a major strand in the intricate tapestry that is House of Meetings, for it is after a visit from his wife Zoya to the prison camp that the narrator’s brother loses his faith in life and life’s possibilities.

The story proceeds on three distinct time levels—the narrator’s present, and the past before the war and after the war—woven together with such novelistic skill that despite the brevity of the novel the reader has the illusion of a nineteenth-century expansiveness. There is a complex interweaving too in the provenance of the brothers:

We were half-brothers with different surnames, and we were radically unalike. To be brief. My father, Valeri, was a Cossack (duly deCossackized in 1920, when I was one). Lev’s father, Dmitri, was a well-to-do peasant, or kulak (duly de-kulakized in 1932, when Lev was three). The father’s genes predominated: I was six foot two, with thick black hair and orderly features, whereas Lev…

Lev is a stammering runt, short, ugly, his “features thrown together inattentively, as if in the dark,” with a nose that was “a mere protuberance”—“And when you looked at him side-on, you thought, Is that his chin or his Adam’s apple?” Yet it is Lev, the hapless intelligent, whom the beautiful Zoya chose over his tall, dark, and handsome half-brother. Zoya, cheerfully promiscuous, was one of pre-war Moscow’s great beauties, “tall and ample and also wasp-waisted.” She and the narrator attended the city’s Institute for Systems together; at the time he was twenty-five and she nineteen, “And Lev, for Christ’s sake, was still at school.” So it is a severe shock when in the winter of 1948 Lev, not yet twenty, arrives to join his brother in the prison camp and informs him that he and Zoya are married.

The heart of the book is the relationship between the brothers, more significant, in the end, than that between the brothers and Zoya. Lev is a pacifist, who as a new arrival has the strength to fight his way to a better position in the barracks. Instead, he contents himself with sleeping on the floor, among the filth and the germs, to the disgust of his brother, for whom violence is “currency, like tobacco, like bread.” Lev becomes, therefore, a standing moral rebuke to the narrator, who in the recent world war, as a Red Army soldier, had, by his own admission, raped his way across eastern Germany, a fact of personal history which at the close of the book will have a violent and tragic repetition.

The book’s portrayal of life in the camp, if life it can be called, is so horrifying that at times the reader will suspect that Amis is indulging in a characteristic giganticism, yet when we check with the historians we find that he is being never less than factual. There is, for instance, the larger-than-life monster Uglik, one of the “janitoriat” (the camp administrators) who makes a brief but horribly memorable appearance at the prison where he has been sent, “as demotion and punishment for a string of disgraces at various camps in South Central Asia.” Allowed the freedom of the place, he spends a day diverting himself by beating, tormenting, and humiliating inmates—Lev is deafened for life in one ear by a slap from Uglik’s leather-gloved hand—then gets hopelessly drunk and passes out in the open in forty degrees below freezing, which results in him losing both his hands to frostbite, and later dying of dementia. Turning to another one of Amis’s acknowledged source books, Andrew Meier’s Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia after the Fall, we discover that Uglik had an original in real life, a certain Lieutenant Colonel Barybin, whose drinking resulted in his being sent to the camp at Norilsk, where he, too, lost his hands, saying afterward “that he did not realize it got so cold in Norilsk.”9

Amis’s description of another set of monsters, the urkas or criminal class of prisoners, makes them seem like fantastical creatures out of Star Wars, yet they were all too real. The narrator describes the camp hierarchy this way:

At the top were the pigs—the janitoriat of administrators and guards. Next came the urkas: designated as “socially friendly elements,” they had the status of trusties who, moreover, did no work. Beneath the urkas were the snakes—the informers, the one-in-tens—and beneath the snakes were the leeches, bourgeois fraudsters (counterfeiters and embezzlers and the like). Close to the bottom of the pyramid came the fascists, the counters, the fifty-eighters, the enemies of the people, the politicals. Then you got the locusts, the juveniles, the little calibans: by-blows of revolution, displacement, and terror, they were the feral orphans of the Soviet experiment. Without their nonsensical laws and protocols, the urkas would have been just like the locusts, only bigger. The locusts had no norms at all… Finally, right down there in the dust were the shiteaters, the goners, the wicks; they couldn’t work anymore, and they could no longer bear the pains of hunger, so they feebly brawled over the slops and the garbage. Like my brother, I was a “socially hostile element,” a political, a fascist. Needless to say, I was not a fascist. I was a Communist. And a Communist I remained until the early afternoon of August 1, 1956. There were also animals, real animals, in our animal farm. Dogs.

The origins of the urkas, Anne Applebaum tells us, “lay deep in the criminal underground of tsarist Russia, in the thieves’ and beggars’ guilds which controlled petty crime in that era.” Ms. Applebaum quotes Antoni Ekart, a Polish prisoner, who was horrified by the

complete lack of inhibition on the part of the urki, who would openly carry out all natural functions, including onanism. This gave them a striking resemblance to monkeys, with whom they seemed to have much more in common than with men.

In House of Meetings the urkas are engaged in a merciless “war between the brutes and the bitches,” as the narrator dubs it, a struggle between those urkas who wanted to join the camp staff and those who wanted to go on being urkas:

This was the year when the tutelary powers lost their hold on the monopoly of violence. It was a time of spasm savagery, with brute going at bitch and bitch going at brute. The factions had, at their disposal, a toolshop each, and this set the tone of their encounters: warm work with the spanner and the pliers, the handspike and the crowbar, vicings, awlings, lathings, manic jackhammerings, atrocious chiselings. Even as Lev jogged across the yard to the infirmary, there came through the mist the ear-hurting screams from the entrance to the toy factory, where two brutes (we later learned) were being castrated by a gang of bitches armed with whipsaws, in retaliation for a blinding earlier that day.

Amis then chooses another animal image, more horrifying and more telling than that of monkeys. He reminds his stepdaughter, Venus, to whom the book is addressed, of how disappointed she was when he took her to the reptile house in the zoo, because “the lizards never moved”:

Imagine that hibernatory quiet, that noisome stasis. Then comes a whiplash, a convulsion of fantastic instantaneity; and after half a second one of the crocodiles is over in the corner, rigid and half-dead with shock, and missing its upper jaw. That was the war between the brutes and the bitches.

Despite his refusal to fight, Lev survives the years of back-breaking labor, the hunger and the cold, and on July 31, 1956—the novel is very specific on dates, which contributes to its aura of authenticity—Zoya comes to visit Lev at the House of Meetings. The jealous narrator, undergoing his own convulsions of torment, comforts himself with the thought that the encounter between the beautiful wife and her half-starved and sickly husband will surely be, sexually at least, a disaster. And a disaster it is, though not of the kind the jealous one had hoped for. He presses Lev to tell him how it went between him and Zoya—jealousy and masochism being close bedfellows—but Lev demurs, saying that one day he will reveal all, but not now. And he is as good as his promise: years later, after Lev’s death, the narrator takes delivery of his effects, among which is the letter—the fateful letter, one almost writes, in the best nineteenth-century mode—which he will carry with him for two decades, and which he will only open on the eve of his own death.

The novel itself is framed as a letter, or better a testament, addressed by the narrator to his American stepdaughter. In the presentation of Venus and her now-dead mother, Phoenix, Amis falls back into that narrational haziness mentioned above. We intuit a complex, loving but difficult triangular relationship here just as fraught in its way as that between the narrator and Lev and Zoya, yet for some reason this part of the story has been left, limply curling and underexposed, on the cutting-room floor. Phoenix and her daughter seem to be black, but we surmise this on the thinnest of hints. What the narrator’s American life was like, even in general, we are not to know. Is this intentional? Does Amis wish us to understand that nothing that came afterward could compare in vividness with the years that the narrator spent first in the camps and then in post-Stalin Russia, before his defection, when he reencountered Zoya, divorced now from Lev but still in love with him? Certainly the memory of those tragic years is suffused with passion and pain such that anything that came after probably could not begin to compare—the scene in which the narrator begs the now middle-aged Zoya to defect with him to America is reminiscent, in its pathos, pain, and delicacy, of Humbert Humbert’s last encounter with his lost Lolita:

I said I was getting out: America. Where I would be rich and free. I said I had thought about her a thousand times a day for thirty-six years. Here and now, I said, she delighted all my senses.

So the second question is—will you come with me?

There it was again: the sweet smell. But now all the windows were closed. And at that moment, as the blood rose through my throat, both my ears gulped shut, and when she spoke it was like listening long-distance, with pause, hum, echo.

America? No, I’m touched, but no. And if you want me to just kiss goodbye to what I have here and put myself back at risk, at my age, you’re wrong…. America. It’s months since I’ve been out in the street. It’s months since I’ve been downstairs.”

Still, the missing American years rankle with the reader.

This is a small complaint, if it even is a complaint. House of Meetings is a rich mixture, all the richer for being so determinedly compressed. In fewer than 250 taut but wonderfully allusive, powerful pages Amis has painted an impressively broad canvas, and achieved a telling depth of perspective. The first-person voice here possesses an authority that is new in Amis’s work. It is as if in all of his books he has been preparing for this one. In his depiction of a nation stumbling, terrified and terrifying, through rivers of its own, self-spilt blood, he delivers a judgment upon a time—our time—the spectacle of which, if it had been but glimpsed by the great figures of the Enlightenment on whose reasonings and hopes the modern world is founded, would have struck them silent with horror. Stalin and Stalin’s Russia have provided Martin Amis with a subject worthy of his vision of a world which, as Joseph de Maistre has it, is “nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be immolated without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death,”10 and in which, in the cruelest of Wildean ironies, the victims of tyranny survive to become tyrants in their turn, destroying even those whom they love most dearly. It is a bleak vision, assuredly, yet as always in the case of a true work of art, our encounter with Amis’s dystopia is ultimately invigorating.


Corrections April 12, 2007

Kingsley Amis and ‘The Great Terror’ April 12, 2007

  1. 6

    One assumes this to be the case—the atlas shows no Predposylov. However, it is worth noting that there is a character of that name in The Eternal Husband, a novella by Dostoevsky which shares many thematic elements with House of Meetings.

  2. 7

    When asked to suggest a new title for a revised, post-glasnost edition of his book The Great Terror, Conquest wrote to his publisher, “How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?” Quoted in Koba the Dread, p. 10.

  3. 8

    AnneApplebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003), p. 254.

  4. 9

    Andrew Meier, Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall(Norton, 2003), p. 223. In light of the recent disgraceful if minor media frenzy over ridiculous charges of plagiarism leveled against Ian McEwan for his novel Atonement, it is worth noting the use that Amis has made in House of Meetings of the work of historians, memoirists, and travel writers. The section on a river voyage from Krasnoyarsk to Norilsk in Meier’s book—which Amis acknowledges—provided some key material, from the description of conditions on board the steamer in which Meier sailed up the Yenisei to the blood-red pools of iron oxide on the roads outside Norilsk. Barybin, the model for Uglik, occupies only five lines in Black Earth, but look what Amis makes of those lines; thus does art distill truth out of mere facts.

  5. 10

    De Maistre, St. Petersburg Dialogues, p. 217.

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