NYRB on Martin Amis and the Gulag

Author John Banville has published a review of Martin Amis’s new book “House of Meetings” in the new issue of the New York Review of Books. House of Meetings tells a story about two brothers who lived through the hell of a Stalin-era Gulag work camp, one of whom returns to Russia as a wealthy ex-patriot to tour the prison system and mourn the loss of his country. amis.jpg Here are some excerpts from the review:

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.” … 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.

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.