Thursday, December 16, 2010
House of Meetings by Martin Amis
This novel was written by Amis during a two year long self-imposed exile in Uruguay following the release and tepid reception afforded to his 2003 novel Yellow Dog. It should be read in tandem with Amis' Koba the Dread, Stalin being the reigning fiend in both books. The title of the book is taken from Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History, in which she writes of a special place for conjugal visits of the wives, at the edge of the prison camp, soon instituted after Stalin's death. The novel is framed as a letter, a book addressed to the narrator's black (hint on p. 72) step-daughter, Venus, as it opens and closes with letters to her. It is a voice from beyond the grave, a posthumously edited testimony of an old Russian émigré and Gulag survivor. Note that Venus also gently plays the role of editor (e.g., p. 177).
Ellen Kanner (Pages Online) makes a very insightful observation about the brothers who are portrayed in this novel about the gulag written in 2006, citing from Experience - "Love has two opposites. One is hate. One is death" (p. 187). Hate in House of Meetings is embodied by the book's unnamed narrator, whose rage helped him survive in a Russian prison camp half a century ago. Death is played by Lev, his half-brother (p. 30), imprisoned in the same gulag but fortunate enough to marry Zoya (on the day he entered prison, Winter, 1948), the Jewish woman the narrator has loved all his life, in a fashion reminiscent of Zhivago. Lev is a pacifist, while the narrator "raped my way across what would soon be East Germany" (p. 35).
The narrator, early on, states "Character is destiny" (p. 16), allusion to Bellow's Augie March, Eliot's Mill on the Floss, Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Novalis.
The 85-year-old narrator, who defected to Chicago in the 1980s, has returned to Russia to revisit Norlag, the slave camp in the north of Siberia, "just above the sixty-ninth parallel" (p. 17), where he and his brother were captive from the late 1940s into the 1950s, after Stalin had died. Neither had committed a crime. Many Russian veterans who fought in Germany were suspected of having been exposed to fascist and Western influences. Lev was convicted for having been heard "praising America in his college cafeteria line, when in fact he had been praising "The Americas," his sibling code name for Zoya (p. 49).
The narrator travels on a cruise ship up the Yanesi River from Krasnoyarsk, across the Arctic Circle to Predposylov (based on Norilsk). It is early 2004 and news is rife with the Beslan atrocity, in which Chechen terrorists took over a school in North Ossetia, resulting in the loss of 344 civilians, 186 of them children. The narrator quotes "an old Kremlin hand" (p. 142), Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Russian prime minister, "We wanted the best,....but it turned out as always" (p. 142). The narrator says "I can't find a Russian who believes that. They didn't want the best, or so every Russian believes. They wanted what they got. They wanted the worst" (p. 143). So true in the case of Beslan.
Conjugal meetings often went disastrously wrong, with the men despairing of their sexual competence after years of privation. The narrator recalls "The only impulse resembling desire that Tanya awoke in me was an evanescent urge to eat her shirt buttons which were made from pellets of chewed bread" (p. 23). Indeed, it is after a visit on July 31, 1956, from his wife Zoya, that Lev loses his faith in life and its possibilities (p. 193). The jealous narrator comforts himself that it is likely that the meeting will be a sexual disaster. When asked how it was, Lev promises to reveal all at a later date (by letter, delivered with his belongings, to be opened after his death). In that letter, Lev recalls "As I made love, I wasn't thinking about my wife. I was thinking about my dinner" (p. 222). The narrator chooses to read the fateful letter only upon his own death years later.
In the meantime, the narrator has an opportunity to reconnect with Zoya, after Lev's death, yet she is still in love with him. He begs the middle-aged Zoya to defect with him to America, reminiscent of the encounter of Humbert Humbert's encounter with Lolita (p. 186):
I said I was getting out: America. Where I would be rich and free. I said I had thought about her a thousand times a day for thirty-six years. Here and now, I said, she delighted all my senses.
So the second question is - will you come with me ?
There it was again: the sweet smell. But now all the windows were closed. And at that moment, as the blood rose through my throat, both my ears gulped shut, and when she spoke it was like listening long-distance, with pause, hum, echo.
"America? No, I'm touched, but no. And if you want me to just kiss goodbye to what I have here and put myself back at risk, at my age, you're wrong...America. It's months since I've been out on the street.
Within a few pages, we have the narrator and Zoya making love in an exquisitely crafted, highly erotic scene (p. 196). Rapidly it transforms into something "that was not a rape from scratch" (p. 197). Commenting on the rape later "At the Rossiya, I crossed over from satyr to senex in the course of an afternoon. As early as the next day I couldn't even remember what it was I liked about women and their bodies" (p. 241). Early on, the narrator comments on his own Zhivagoesque focus - "When a man conclusively exalts one woman, and one woman only, "above all others," you can be pretty sure you are dealing with a misogynist" (p. 34).
In the final analysis, what is this book really about fundamentally ? One hint lies in the influence that Michael Specter's piece in The New Yorker (11/10/04) entitled "Is Russia Dying" had on Amis story. "Russia tried to kill herself in the 1930s, after the first decade of Joseph Vissarionovich [Stalin]. He was already a cadaver millionaire about ten times over, even before the Terror. But he did need Russians to go on producing Russians. And they stopped" (p. 237). Moreover, "Over the next fifty years, in any event, the population is expected to halve" (p. 209). Amis comments on the mid-life crisis. "In America, with divorce achieved, the midlifer can expect to be more recreational, more discretionary. He can almost design the sort of crisis he is going to have: motorbike, teenage girlfriend, vegetarianism, jogging, sportscar, mature boyfriend, cocaine, crash diet, powerboat, new baby, religion, hair transplant. 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" (p. 72).
The second theme is summarized by a prisoner's tattoo "You may live, but you won't love" (p. 85). The camp extracted a huge toll through "a weakened power to love" (p. 234). It is captured in the inevitable transformation from satyr to senex quoted above.
Amis foreshadows his next book, The Pregnant Widow, on the final page with "go, little book, go, little mine tragedy" (p. 245), a line from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, the author hoping that before he dies that he can "make [...] som comedye."
"Rictus" sighting (p. 128).