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Skilled but frustrating and unconvincing
on 10 June 2007
`we will have to keep returning to the subject of mass emotion.', says Amis' unnamed and rich octogenarian narrator in his opening letter to his niece, which warns of the painful truths he is to divulge about his life. The narrator is heading north along the Yenisei river bisecting Russia, and towards the mass emotion of his own past as a political prisoner in one Stalin's gulags.
`Mass emotion' is fertile ground for Amis. Before his non-fiction exploration of the same historical and political territory in Koba the Dread, Amis has already tackled the Holocaust in a rather bold backwards-moving narrative (moving literally backwards in time being the only way for him to move in to the Holocaust itself) and before that a book of short stories headed by an emotional and polemical essay, all tackling the subject of nuclear weapons (from an existential tack: the meaning of their mere existence). Even in his more urban comic fiction Amis' acerbic vision is subverted by anonymous murdered children in The Information, spasmodic hovering violence in Money and a nameless atmospheric threat in the apocalyptic London Fields.
In The House of Meetings - the name of the area for conjugal visits with prisoners in the gulag - Amis provides two narratives that move as shifting scenery around the brutality of the prison life, which is rawly portrayed through individual scenes of the narrator's encounter with lightning-quick violence between the competing hierarchies, scurvy, cold and starvation. In the foreground is a claustrophobic love-triangle between the narrator, his physically inferior brother Lev who is also imprisoned, and a beautiful Jewish girl Zoya who is singularly unaware of the power of her outrageous `physical gifts' as well as her growing peril in a rising atmosphere of anti-Semitism. In the background is the narrator's continued commentary on modern Russia, particularly the ongoing Beslan siege. Here Amis manages to draw the Russia that seems to gnaw at him into focus more effectively than anywhere else in the novel. `The frequency of the total' the narrator calls it, adapting from Conrad - total states of fear and violence, `Russian heavy-handedness' (`Why are our hands so heavy?' he asks his niece, `What weighs them down?'), total cynicism at the modern Putin government where so many Russians spontaneously believe the theory of Russian complicity in the separatist atrocities. Upon the totality of the soviet experiment itself it is given to the philosophical Lev to expound - `We can shake our heads and say physics did it. Geography did it.', the sheer size of Russia and its extreme climate necessitating the successive `black holes' at its centre throughout history to hold it together.
The love-triangle is less successful. Zoya is a complex cipher (her nickname is The Americas) who feels solid only briefly in the second half of the novel when we find her older and somewhat compromised: married to Ananias; a former propaganda stooge standing as the awful mirror-image of her former husband, the poet Lev. Zoya has echoes of many more solid female characters of Amis'; she is that type of lethal-force of femininity which keeps surfacing and then sacrificing itself in Amis' novels, sacrificing itself in resignation or disgust at the parlous and foolish arena of male desire and violence, or somehow sacrificed to the male existential fear - Nicola Six in London Fields, Jennifer Rockwell in Night Train. However she is never sufficiently constructed in our minds beyond being a foil for the narrator's rapacious desire, and a foil for the growing hysterical bigotry within Russia itself.
The narrator himself is a brave prospect as a character. One of his first confessions to his niece is his unquestioning war-time participation in the mass rape of German women as the Red Army entered Berlin. However Amis' muscular and searching male narrative voice is correspondingly incapable of mimicry or transformation; it is simply not possible to take him as Russian or anything more than one of Amis' grizzled soul-sick wordsmiths dressed up. The reader ends up feeling distanced from the narrator's eloquent and sharp remorse by the very dynamism of Amis' prose.
Lev consequently emerges as the character with the most fascination; his pacifism within the Gulag unfolds later on as we gradually discover his character to be one of tragic and philosophical stoicism which the narrator simply cannot reach.
The House of Meetings is a compact and painful and daring novel, but one whose glib skilfulness in collapsing vast material ultimately works against it.