Friday, December 3, 2010
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by Martin Amis
This book was published (2002) soon after Amis' memoirs about his father (Experience), primarily as a response to his sister's (Sally) death at 46 (November, 2000), six months after its publication. He put his writing chores for his next novel (Yellow Dog) on hold, which had begun in earnest the day after 9/11 (2001). September 11 seemed to make fiction pointless. The only problem is that Sally is given very short shrift in the book. Diedrick (Understanding Martin Amis) points out that more is said about her in Experience. It is worth quoting, because it confirms Amis' view of women as mere delineators of the relations between men. M.A. "figuratively limits the meaning of Sally's life to her attendance on Kingsley, and equated Kingsley's death with hers" (Diedrick) - "Sally, I'm sorry, but no urgent tasks await you. He has finished his work and you have finished yours. There is nothing left to be done" (Experience, p. 355). We'll get back to her soon enough. Essentially, this book is an "historiography" (pp. 35, 125) of Stalin's reign of terror. Historiography is writing about rather than of history. Historiography is meta-analysis of descriptions of the past. The analysis usually focuses on the narrative, interpretations, worldview, use of evidence, or method of presentation of other historians.
At this juncture, Smith (The Scotsman) comments "Amis is still in his post-Experience experience." Evidently, the real raison d'etre for the book is a chance for Amis to fume about the death toll from Stalin's reign of terror, a settling of the score regarding his father's known Communist Party affiliation in the 1950s (echoing the "extravagant dupes of the USSR: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw..." (p. 21n)) and the politics of his closest friend, Christopher Hitchens (for which he replied formally in the Guardian). Amis' preoccupation with the evil of Stalin stems from his desire to understand why his father "believed, and believed in, Soviet Communism for fifteen years" (p. 272). Beyond that interest, he never visited any gulag sites or North Korea, for that matter, the only surviving Stalinist state. Amis "read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment" (p. 4), including his father's close friend and leading Sovietologist Robert Conquest's The Great Terror (1968). Conquest is famously said to have suggested the revised version (1990) of the book be titled "I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?" (p. 10). Amis relates (as told to Preston, The Telegraph) his surprise at "the eisteddfod of hostility" the book received in the UK. Amis really takes it on the chin from genuine historians like academic heavyweight Orlando Figes (A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, which Amis mined as source material for the book (p. 224)), who crafts careful arguments showing the multitude of egregious errors in the text. But I think Kakutani (The New York Times) got it right, despite it being self-conscious and self-indulgent, saying "it does a credible job of conveying just how Stalin went about "breaking the truth," and it should send readers running to better, more scholarly books on this tragic period in history." Her elegant remarks also appear at the end of this post.
Koba is a name that Stalin adopted from a popular Russian novel titled The Patricide. Stalin wsa also a nickname for Man of Steel. He was obsessed with "prepotence" (p. 110). His purges killed 20,000,000 people. Diedrick notes that laughter identifies "the literary paradigm that organizes...Amis' analysis of Stalin's evil....Stalin comes to resemble an outsized, world-historical version of the grotesque villains that populate his novels....Amis assigns the Russian nightmare to a subgenre of comedy...[his comparisons of Stalin with King Lear] trivialize both literature and history." The book is replete with Shakespearian references. He quotes Solzhenitsyn: "'The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses...Because they had no ideology'....Ideology brings about a disastrous fusion: that of violence and righteousness - a savagery without stain" (p. 86).
Amis relates his father's belief in communism as emblematic of the "chief lacuna" (p. 5) of the 20th century: the failure of western intellectuals to condemn Stalin's horrors. Orlando Figes (The Telegraph) dismisses both his father and Hitchins as café communists. In "Letter to a Friend" Amis challenges best friend Christopher Hitchens from his Uruguayan retreat in Maldonado. Hitchens felt compelled to draft a lengthy letter to Amis in The Guardian (September 4, 2002), rebutting Amis' claims. Hitchens ribs Amis the "counter revolutionary tourist" and reminds him that in Uruguay 10% of the population was forced into exile in the 1970s. He ends "I'm sorry all over again that you have written on the subject in such a way as to give pleasure to those who don't love you, as I do."
In his novels, Amis often uses comic pairs to offset each other, this is done in Koba to compare Stalin with Hitler, in a chapter entitled "The Little Mustache and the Big Mustache" (p. 81). Alluding to Dr. Faustus and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Amis states "Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub ? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kid of laughter is it ? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the twenty million" (pp. 256-257). Needless to say, Amis took heat on this concept of laughter in a serious study of history.
Along these lines, Hari (The Independent) makes the case that Amis "equates human worth with literary worth," having done this in Experience with Lucy Partington's killer, Fred West (whose evil stems from literary failings, Experience, p. 172). Hari claims "Stalin's murders of artists like Meyerhold is held up by Amis as axiomatically worse than the killing of, say, a peasant grandmother." Further (taking things personally), "he has given us this book...because he thinks his own literary interpretation of Stalin is important...The only human response is to pity poor, preposterous Martin Amis, deluding himself that he---or his talentless father---have more merit than toilet cleaners like my granny, who read little but love more than he can ever know."
Back to Sally. In the "Afterword: Letter to My Father's Ghost", Amis soothes the paternally anxious spirit of his father: "Even in death, Sally Amis facilitates communion between men" (Diedrick). Yet, Amis throws a curve ball. Anonymously present at Sally's funeral was Sally's daughter. Remember, you and I saw her when she was a baby (in the summer of 1979), just before her adoption. The baby, who was perfect, was called Heidi, names after Sally's very unencouraging new mentor. She is not called Heidi any longer. Sally, then, was twenty-four. Catherine, now, is twenty-two. She had never met her mother" (p. 275). This is eerily reminiscent of Delilah, M.A.'s daughter from a brief affair with Lamorna Seale, showing up at a similar age. It is noteworthy that poet Philip Larkin read a poem written on the occasion of Sally's birth "Born Yesterday" at her funeral (pp. 268-269).
Perhaps the most outrageous takehome from the book is how his daughter Clio (dedicatee) was nicknamed Butyrki, after "the best prison in Moscow" (p. 259): "I was alone in the house [Primrose Hill mansion] with my 6-month old daughter...Without preamble she embarked on a weeping fit that began at the outer limit of primordial despair, and then steadily escalated. "The sounds she was making," I said to my wife on her return, "would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror....Butyrki, I am afraid, is now established as one of my daughter's chief nicknames" (pp. 259-260). Further, as Kakutani asserts "Mr. Amis suggests that by looking at one individual death- namely, his sister's - he is delivering a kind of response to the assertion attributed to Stalin that" - "while every death is a tragedy, the death of a million is a mere statistic" (pp. 276-277). "The problem is that Sally Amis turns out to be little more than a footnote in this volume [rather than a rebuttal of Stalin's aphorism], and Mr. Amis's other personal asides, plopped in the midst of what is a historical survey of Soviet crimes against humanity, feel like the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class littérateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin's victims did." Ultimately, the connection between Stalin and Sally Amis is tenuous at best. Stalin's aphorism is rebutted and cannot form a bridge between the two, a disjunction that remains unresolved.
Let's end with a joke from the book. "Q: Why are the USSR and America the same ? A: Because in the USSR you can joke about America and in America you can joke about America" (p. 21). Or even better by the executioner of the Tsar and family, that he could "die in peace because he had squeezed the Empress's ------" (p. 56).