Executioner Songs

Here is Joseph de Maistre, jurist, philosopher, and grand reactionary, in exile in St. Petersburg in the first part of the nineteenth century, contemplating the figure of the Executioner, with whom so many of his fellow French aristocrats had suffered an all too intimate encounter a couple of decades previously:

So who is this inexplicable being who, when there are so many pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honourable professions in which he could exercise his strength or dexterity to choose among, has chosen that of torturing and putting to death his own kind? Are this head and this heart made like our own? Do they contain anything that is peculiar and alien to our nature? For myself, I have no doubt about this. In outward appearance he is made like us; he is born like us. But he is an extraordinary being, and for him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power.1

And here, quoted by Martin Amis in his book Koba the Dread (2002), is the biographer Dmitri Volkogonov writing of a particular executioner:

No other man in the world has ever accomplished so fantastic a success as he: to exterminate millions of his own countrymen and receive in exchange the whole country’s blind adulation.2

It might be said that Martin Amis and Stalin’s Russia were two things that were waiting to happen to each other. What other novelist of his generation would have risked treating the enormities visited upon the twentieth century with such vigor, such moral outrage, such foolhardy daring? In Time’s Arrow (1991) he found a novel means of tackling that most perilous—for the novelist—topic, the Holocaust, by having his protagonist live his life backward, from all-American citizen in the present day to newborn German baby in the young century, with visits in between to the death camps, where, it is discovered, he played a modest but not insignificant role.

Time’s Arrow was a risk, but it succeeded. In interviews at the time, however, Amis insisted that it was one of a kind, and that he was not a political but, essentially, a comic novelist. The book, as he wrote in an afterword, was inspired, if one may speak of inspiration when the subject was so dire, by his friend Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, without which, Amis wrote, “my novel would not and could not have been written.”3 And sure enough, his next novel, The Information (1995), was a return to the form of his great, sprawling comedies Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Yet the world was too much with him for a full withdrawal from the arena of public history.

Through his journalism especially he could venture at will into that arena, bringing back hair-raising reports of what it was like when the lions were let loose—all that blood, all those screams—but also essaying wonderfully comic turns, such as his…

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