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An evil too great to be conveyed, even by Amis

MARTIN AMIS (Isabel Fonseca)

House of Meetings
By Martin Amis
Knopf, 241 pp., $23

Martin Amis made his bones as the inheritor of his father's throne, the crown prince of finely wrought English comic realism. Possessed of a wickedly barbed tongue and a remarkable gift for the apposite image, or the just-right metaphor, Amis wrote novels that portrayed individuals stuck in nightmare worlds of their own devising. If he owed half his writerly allegiance to old Kingsley's antic mellifluousness, Amis has come to take on a second mentor -- a surprising choice for so resolutely English a writer. In 2002, Amis published a slim work of nonfiction called "Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million." "Koba" was an old revolutionary nickname for Joseph Stalin, and Amis's book wrestled with the disproportionately puny response of the West (and Western liberals in particular) to the enormity of Soviet evil. "Koba" was intended as a feisty introduction for Westerners, a lengthy preamble of sorts to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's " The Gulag Archipelago" -- still the last word on the subject.

Amis's book was written in a rage -- rage at the callousness of the Soviet regime, the endless expanses of meaningless death known as the gulags, and the maddening indifference of liberals too enamored with leftist ideology to see the truth of the Communist disaster. It comes as no surprise to any admirers of "Koba " that what Amis struggled with in his nonfiction would become fodder for his fiction. As far back as "Time's Arrow," in 1991, Amis had evinced an interest in the mechanics of evil seemingly at odds with his comedies of manners. With "Koba" and now "House of Meetings," Amis has taken on the burden of the Soviet Union, and in his new novel, he wants us to meet his challenge by stepping outside ourselves, and our own experiences. "Now, pluck out your Western eyes. Pluck them out, and reach for the other pair," the book's unnamed narrator tells us. Given the book's numerous nods to Joseph Conrad, "House of Meetings" might just as easily be called "Under Eastern Eyes."

The task of utilizing our Eastern eyes is more difficult than it sounds, for both Amis and ourselves. Amis frames the book as a manuscript written by its elderly protagonist, intended solely for the eyes of his 20-something American granddaughter. His tale is told against the backdrop of a tour of the gulag sites, and his pessimistic appraisal of the unfolding Beslan school catastrophe of 2004 -- a sure sign that Russian brutality never waned. Serving 10 years for fascist subversion in a gulag camp in the aftermath of World War II, our narrator is surprised to find that his frail, bookish half brother Lev has arrived, having received a similar sentence for expressing pro-American sentiments. That surprise is compounded when Lev tells him he has married Zoya, the exotic beauty who had been the object of his slavish affections.

Genuine concern for Lev, who appears unable to cope with the Boschean reality of the camps, or their staggering workload, wrestles with jealousy over losing his love to his shrimpy younger brother. Unlike the pacifist Lev, he has been turned into a violent brute by the long Soviet nightmare. As he points out, " In the first three months of 1945, I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany." Life in the camps does not allow for much weakness either, and violence and death are constant presences in Norlag. The tragedy, for our narrator, is the way in which Stalin's totalitarian nightmare has robbed him of his own humanity.

For both himself and Lev, the symbol of their joint tragedy is the House of Meetings, a gussied-up shack that housed the exceedingly infrequent conjugal visits for prisoners. It was on one such occasion in 1956 that Zoya visited Lev, inadvertently sapping him of whatever zest for life remained. For the rest of their lives, after the camps, Lev promises his brother that one day he will reveal the secret of the House of Meetings, and Amis builds his book on this ultimately flimsy foundation. After Lev and his brother leave the camps, the book staggers on for another 100 pages, but the purpose of Amis's visit to this alien human landscape grows hazy, and the book ultimately fizzles, trapped under the weight of its historical memory, and the scale of its intentions.

"House of Meetings" seeks to fictionalize the world of "Gulag Archipelago," or of Anne Applebaum's magnificent "Gulag," with Amis doing his best to shed his British skin, and document the horror from the inside. By seeking to imitate Solzhenitsyn, though, Amis has taken on more than he can handle -- more, realistically speaking, than any non-Russian writer could handle. The horror that is the subject of Solzhenitsyn's prose is encased in protective layers of irony and comedy -- a sheath that shields him, ever so slightly, from what he documents, and allows the sword to penetrate his readers stealthily; surprised, as they inevitably are, that there was laughter and good talk, even in Kolyma. Amis does his utmost to reanimate Solzhenitsyn, occasionally capturing his essence , but the tone of weary, ironic remove is simply inimitable. Amis has never lost his remarkable gift for description, or his crisp command of dialogue, but the enormity of the camps overwhelms even him.

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