Martin Amis’ House of Meetings
“Russia is the nightmare country. And always the compound nightmare. Always the most talented nightmare.”
– Martin Amis House of Meetings
How could any novelist resist?
Martin Amis’ new novel House of Meetings is a book about the compound nightmare that was / is Soviet Russia – more specifically, it is the story of two brothers, one a war veteran and ‘heroic rapist’, the other a pacifist, who are thrown into a labour camp under the Stalinist regime and must spend the rest of their lives coping with the realities of political oppression, both during their imprisonment and after it. The book is also, nominally, a love story (the two are in love with the same woman) but this is at least somewhat of a red herring. As Amis unnamed narrator puts it, “I and my brother are characters in a work of social history from below, in the age of titanic nonentities.”
At this stage, it is reasonable to ask what Amis, born and brought up in England, is doing writing a novel about political oppression in Soviet Russia. “You must try hard to imagine it”, Amis writes, “the disgusting proximity of the state, its body odour, its breath on your neck, its stupidly expectant stare.” But what does he know about it? Isn’t he imagining it too?
The truth is (and this is the key reason why the book works) that House of Meetings is not so much an imagined account of political oppression as it is an account of what oppression does to the imagination, to the human spirit. Amis is not writing about a police state, he is writing about a state of mind. In the grand tradition of Dostoyevsky and Conrad (two authors he explicitly acknowledges as influences) this is a book not about oppression per se but about the idea of oppression and about the response of what we could once have called the soul. (more…)
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