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In the Shadow of the Gulag
A story of two brothers caught in Stalin's hellish penal system.

Reviewed by Thomas Mallon
Sunday, January 14, 2007

HOUSE OF MEETINGS

A Novel

By Martin Amis

Knopf. 242 pp. $23

Over the past decade, the English novelist Martin Amis has been increasingly haunted by a colossal historical atrocity that doesn't really belong to him -- at least not in the usual way such catastrophes are assigned as moral burdens to posterity.

In Koba the Dread (2002), his slim and forthright nonfiction volume about Soviet communism's 20 million victims, Amis admitted to having felt a certain youthful queasiness over the way demonstrations against the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia tended to be "sorrowful, decent" and quite small affairs, whereas America's involvement in Vietnam gave rise to teeming protests marked by "unfakable emotings and self-lacerations." If the 1973 publication of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago failed to make more than a dent in Western political ignorance, Amis did recognize a certain progress in the historical debate: "The argument, now, is about whether Bolshevik Russia was 'better' than Nazi Germany. In the days when the New Left dawned, the argument was about whether Bolshevik Russia was better than America."

Amis's own imagining of Soviet crime shows no sign of resting. House of Meetings, his new novel about life during and after the gulag, is a slender book, on the same scale as the nonfictional Koba, and quite imperfect as a novel. But it is vivid and even scarifying, more than some mere noble acknowledgment of mass suffering, a suffering that Western intellectuals so often excused.

House of Meetings is told by an unnamed narrator born in 1919 and now in his 80s. A veteran of World War II, he admits: "In the first three months of 1945, I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany." It was not, however, for any such actual crimes that he soon joined millions of new prisoners in the Soviet camps; it was for committing an imagined offense from the ever-lengthening and always more inane list of political transgressions.

The narrator's half-brother, Lev, a physically slight, intellectual pacifist, joins him in one of the Arctic prisons in 1948. Lev's crime (sentence: 25 years) is to have been overheard "praising America." What he'd actually been praising was "The Americas," the brothers' nickname for Zoya, a gorgeous girl they both love, whose voluptuous upper and lower halves are separated by a waist "as thin as Panama." The narrator's emotions for Zoya may have struck him "like an honor," but it's the unprepossessing Lev with whom Zoya falls in love. The experience renders him "almost paranoiac with happiness. It was like religion combined with reason." She even makes his stutter vanish. (Zoya's first name may be Amis's tribute to Zoya Vlasova, an actual victim of Stalinism -- less than 10 years old -- unforgettably footnoted by Solzhenitsyn and quoted in Koba.)

Having lost out to Lev, the narrator must console himself with a bitterly grandiose explanation for Zoya's failure to have enjoyed his own kiss: "The taste she didn't like was the ferrous hormone of war. . . . I could attribute my failure to historical forces, along with everything else. History did it."

House of Meetings remains less a story of romantic rivalry than of fraternal love. As the much tougher customer and the first to arrive in the camp, the narrator must teach his brother how to "find some murder in his heart" if Lev is to survive the logic and methods of the system, whose twin pillars are boredom and terror. Amis makes fine use of the gruesome history he's read and heard, letting readers hear "the sound of three hundred men eating in their sleep" as well as the crunches and cracks of the beatings, one of which leaves Lev with "two worms of bloody phlegm coiling out of his head."

In the years after Stalin's death, the gulag system falls from rebellion within and liberalization without, a process that turns the Soviet Union, by the late 1950s, into a society of ex-prisoners and ex-jailers. In those days, when one queued for fruit or some other scarce commodity, the narrator explains, "If the line was fifty Russians long, there would be seven or eight who had been away. There would be another seven or eight who had helped put them there."

The novel guides us in a glinting, almost furtive way through the brothers' later lives, revealing Lev's eventual abandonment by Zoya as well as the narrator's material success, first as a television repairman and then an expert on "rotary launchers for nuclear weapons." All of this occurs prior to his own reckoning with Zoya and then emigration to America in the early 1980s.

The book opens two decades after that. He has returned, quite rich, to Vladimir Putin's post-Soviet Russia, which he recognizes as never having undergone the atonement that Germany at least attempted to practice for its own mass murders. Hearing news, in 2004, of the Chechen rebels' siege of Beslan's School No. 1, he feels himself "re-Russifying," once more picking up the "national traits: the freedom from all responsibility and scruple, the energetic championship of views and beliefs that are not only irreconcilable but also mutually exclusive, the weakness for a humor of squalor and cynicism, the tendency to speak most passionately when being most insincere, and the thirst for abstract argument." The "Russian cross" is not an emblem of revitalized Christianity but a point of actuarial calamity: the graphic intersection of the declining birth rate and the rising death rate, which occurred in 1992. "Russia is dying," says our narrator, in farewell. "And I'm glad."

His voice throughout is ugly and seductive, full of Amis's typically wonderful phrasing and metaphor: An apartment building full of the retired political elite in the 1980s contains "many a venerable and contented mass-murderer -- taciturn amnesiacs on state pensions"; shaking hands with a politically reliable Soviet novelist, the narrator feels "the vile bivalve of his clasp."

The difficulty with such bravura moments is that readers will too often feel themselves hearing not the gulag survivor but the accomplished English novelist. A line such as this one -- "Great beauties, they don't have to do the work that we have to do, the work of vox populi and 'Mass Observation' " -- belongs more to Oxford than to Omsk; it is the price Amis occasionally can't help paying for his own extreme gifts.

The book's title refers to a camp building in which Lev is permitted a conjugal visit with Zoya in 1956. What actually happens inside the House of Meetings, and its shattering effect upon the narrator's half-brother, become the chief psychological mystery and source of suspense in the novel, but the revelatory payoff may strike readers as somewhat vague and anticlimactic, dampened as it is by some of the same abstraction that the narrator finds so telltale in the national character.

Still, the book gnaws at one's memory. Amis tries to imagine history with the intimacy and specificity that the greatest historical novelists, including Tolstoy, have always presumed to seek for it. History is the element that Soviet citizens were encouraged to see themselves living in and moving through, always forward; it is the element from which Americans tend to see themselves, even now, as being exempt. For Amis's narrator, it is the swirl in which we swim and sink, a poison that lays waste to millions of lives and sullies even a kiss. ยท

Thomas Mallon's novels include "Henry and Clara," "Bandbox" and the forthcoming "Fellow Travelers."

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