HOUSE OF MEETINGS by Martin Amis (Knopf Canada), 241 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
An 84-year-old Russian emigre narrates this harrowing account of his and his brother's 10 years of hard labour in a Siberian gulag as young men in the late 1940s. Their crime? Praising America.
What the Stalinist regime didn't grasp was that he was actually praising "the Americas," his sly term for the voluptuous Zoya, a young Jewish woman who had captivated both brothers' erotic imagination with her waist "as thin as Panama."
This absurd miscarriage of justice sets the tone for Martin Amis's new novel, in which our narrator, a decorated Soviet war hero and war criminal (he calls himself a member of "the raping army of 1944"), attempts to help his brother survive camp life.
After Stalin, the narrator prospers in Moscow's black economy as an arms dealer and finally a wealthy defector to the West.
Zoya, the emotional centre of the book, rejects the brutally resourceful narrator and chooses Lev, his stuttering, pacifist younger brother as a husband instead, fuelling a misshapen love triangle that thrives in a social system founded equally, in the narrator's words, on the pillars of violence and boredom.
Amis's almost lurid eye for detail delivers black comedy both incisive and bruising, providing the dark laughter that's needed to help us wade through his horrific subject matter, including a scurvy-plagued prisoner. House Of Meetings offers a sort of concrete poetry of atrocity.
Addressed to the narrator's American stepdaughter, Venus, the book reveals the delirium of a nihilistic Easterner whose life has been deeply deformed by war and totalitarianism.
It is also, in Nabokovian fashion, the confession of a monster who, like present-day Russia itself, cannot come to a full moral reckoning with the past.