Amis' imagining of gulag suffering

House of Meetings
By Martin Amis

Knopf. 242 pp. $23

Martin Amis is admirably concerned that the colossal atrocities inflicted upon Russia by the Soviet regime not be forgotten. Koba the Dread (2002), his meditation on the evil works and pomps of Stalin, while replete with a detailed litany of the horrors the paranoid Georgian set in motion, also established that "Uncle Joe" was simply continuing - on a far grander scale, of course - homicidal policies already well-established by Lenin and Trotsky.

In House of Meetings, Amis undertakes to grapple with this subject fictionally. The novel takes the form, apparently, of a gigantic e-mail - "Any moment now I will click SEND," we read on the last page - written by an unnamed octogenarian Russian to Venus, his much younger American stepdaughter. It is being written as the narrator takes a trip back to the location of the slave labor camp where he served a 10-year sentence.

His narrative is elliptical in the extreme. He calls it a love story - "So of course I must begin with the House of Meetings." This, it gradually becomes clear, is where conjugal visits were permitted to take place. The narrator's story has to do with the visit paid to his younger brother Lev - a prisoner in the same camp - by the woman Lev had married just before his arrest. "They'd been married for eight years. But this would be their first night together as husband and wife." As it happens, Lev's wife, an eccentric and randy beauty named Zoya, is also the woman of the narrator's dreams.

The conjugal visit takes place on July 31, 1956. Only the narrator doesn't actually get around to telling much about it for another hundred-odd pages. First, he tells us what he did that night, then he tells about his brother's arrival at the camp and the ghastly episodes that took place in the camp between then and the conjugal visit. Oh, and he also tells how, as an officer in the Soviet army, "I had raped my way across what would soon be East Germany."

He tells Venus he has an unopened letter that he promises to read before he dies. It is only when he does read it - very near the end - that we get some idea of what happened between Lev and Zoya that July night in 1956. In the meantime we learn, among other things, of the narrator's black-market business dealings, something of Lev's subsequent life, something of the narrator's involvement with Jocelyn Harris, wife of a British diplomat, a tiny bit about Venus' mother, and something of Venus' education, boyfriends and outlook.

Amis is a dazzling writer, capable of shaping indelible phrases ("leftovers of comfort, at the banquet of sorrow"). But the structural peculiarities and stylistic hijinks not only render the narrative static but also deprive it of emotional resonance. It's as though an executioner decided to entertain the crowd with an elaborate tap dance before getting down to the messy business of lopping off some poor sap's head.

It may well be that Amis has tried the impossible. He seems to have wanted to get at what exactly being subjected over years to a systematic regimen of torment does to the human spirit. And that is precisely what is unimaginable to those who have never experienced anything remotely like that. It is also what has made the experience of the gulag so resistant to literary treatment: The Western reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich finds it hard to take in the reality of the casual cruelty Solzhenitsyn so matter-of-

factly chronicles.

Amis didn't help things by choosing to have his tale told in a sardonic voice lacking any hint of a spiritual dimension. His narrator sounds as if he has more in common with the tormentors than the tormented. Only once, toward the very end, does he say something that is genuinely touching: "Say sorry, someone. Someone tell me they're sorry."

It lasts but a moment. The mocking tone immediately returns: "Cry me the Volga. . . ."

Oddly, though, the narrator is sharply perceptive regarding the spiritual vacuity of Western society:

There is a Western phenomenon called the male midlife crisis. Very often it is heralded by divorce. What history might have done to you, you bring about on purpose: separation from woman and child. . . . Over here, now, there's no angling around for your male midlife crisis. It is brought to you and it is always the same thing. It is death.

Locked inside House of Meetings and trying to get out is another novel, about the grave moral posturing born of privilege and sloth. It is a novel Amis ought to set free.

Martin Amis will appear at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., Thursday night at 8. Admission $12; $6 for students. Information: 215-567-4341.

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