Russians are tough: particularly Russian women, since the men tend to be tough to the point of early self-destruction. Even the language sounds tough – only Polish sounds more like a stand-up argument is in progress while in fact two lovers coo endearments at each other. Russians have been imbued with a special and enduring kind of gloom and fatalism by their history, yet somehow they refuse to be cowed by it: ‘So we’ve had a hard few centuries? Nitchevo.’
Martin Amis, by some mysterious process that cannot entirely be explained by the word ‘research’, has absolutely nailed the Russian collective psyche, and he does it in under two hundred pages, in a novel called House of Meetings.
While reading House of Meetings it is impossible not to wonder if Amis deliberately set out to create a narrator it is impossible to sympathise with. He remains un-named throughout the entire novel. He’s a rapist (many, many times over). He’s a murderer. He feels a form of contempt for almost everyone he ever meets. What else? Well, he expects forgiveness.
The reader licks their chops: it’s going to be fun to withhold that forgiveness.
House of Meetings is essentially a long letter written by the narrator to his step-daughter, Venus: an attempt on his part to inspire her understanding and elicit her sympathy. At the heart of the narrative is ‘a love story. All right, Russian love. But still love.’
It’s the story of two brothers who love Zoya: ‘The love story is triangular in shape, and the triangle is not equilateral. I sometimes like to think that the triangle is isosceles: it certainly comes to a very sharp point.’
The narrator returned from the Second World War a decorated and wounded hero. In his words ‘I raped my way across what would soon be East Germany.’ This is not a metaphor. But heroic conduct in war was no safeguard in Stalin’s Russia: the narrator and his brother Lev find themselves Norlag in 1948, one of the countless slave-labour camps that played their part in ending more than twenty million Russian lives during the twentieth century.
When the business of surviving the camp is over, the business of surviving the Zona – gulag slang for non-gulag Soviet Russia – begins. I could never forgive the narrator of House of Meetings. But by the end I felt I could understand him. Believe me – that was frightening enough.
It feels like a crime to reveal any more of the story, so let’s have a look at what makes this novel (like anything written by Amis) really, really good: the prose, and the quality of the ideas.
Here’s a description of the port at Dudinka:
‘It is a Mars of rust, in various hues and concentrations. Some of the surfaces have dimmed to a modest apricot, losing their barnacles and asperities. Elsewhere, it looks like arterial blood, newly shed, newly dried. The rust boils and bristles, and the keel of the upended ferry-boat glares out across the water with personalised fury, as if oxidation were a crime it would lay at your door.’
Isn’t that stunning? The riff on the spectrum of reds that leads up to the personification of the last few clauses, the dense evocation, the prose rhythm that’s as easy to read aloud as it is to read in your head.
Or this: more proof that Amis has pin-pointed an important aspect of Russia, and of being Russian:
“‘Never mind, for now, about famine, flood, pestilence, and war: if God really cared about us, he would never have given us religion.’ But this loose syllogism is easily exploded, and all questions of theodicy simply disappear – if God is a Russian.”
Since half of my genetic inheritance is Russian (if you don’t believe me, take a closer look at my nose sometime; or, even better, take me out drinking – if you’re picking up the tab), and because I’ve spent a fair bit of time around these frighteningly marvellous people, I feel I’m in some position to applaud Amis’ insights into them, and collude in his criticisms.
I can spot a Russian from the distance of a thousand versts. No, not the noses. However, the noses are often visible from space and, thanks to certain distillations of grain and potatoes, show up on thermo-imaging satellite photographs. It’s the attitude that’s unmistakable once you know what to look for.
When the narrator describes a pregnant woman (who is painfully thin other than her protuberant belly), as ‘string on a parcel’ I recognise it unmistakably as a Slavic thought: it’s homely, instantly comprehensible and contains worrying layers of meaning, not all of them particularly nice. Perhaps this is the clue to Amis’ insight.
Because Amis too is essentially homely in his descriptions, he too is lucid and above all he is complex and often dark.
I think there’s something just a bit Russian in Martin Kingsleyovich.