Thursday, October 26, 2006

The House of Meetings - Martin Amis - Jonathan Cape

I am full of admiration for the skill of this master writer, a veritable craftman with his use of the English language - a writer whom New Zealand journalist Steve Braunias recently described in the Sunday Star Times as perhaps "the cleverest writer alive with his dazzling, spectacular prose, his knockout lines and his brilliant thinking".

Having said that though I have to say that this is the bleakest and most joyless book I have read in many a year, perhaps ever.

He gives us the squalor and ghastliness of the , The Gulag Archipelago, so astonishingly and powerfully described back in the 70's by Alexander Solzenitsyn following his 8 years in Soviet prison camps and for which he was subsequently exiled.

Amis' novel is told in the form of a letter written by an un-named elderly Russian to his American half-daughter. Near the end of his life he is paying a visit to the prison camp in the Russian arctic (why would you?) where he spent 10 years until 1956 as a political prisoner in the most apalling conditions imagineable.

The letter, the novel, moves backwards and forwards between this ghastly gulag setting, his complex relationship with his half-brother Lev, and his refelctions on modern day Russia.
The deprivations of camp life seem beyond human endurance.
The prisoners put up with freezing cold, starvation, disease, gang wars and the most obscene and unimagineable inhmanities inflicted buy other prisoners.

Underlying all this is the story of the two half-brothers having fallen in love with the same 19 year old Jewish woman in Moscow before they were imprisoned and so there is this sort of tragic, hopeless love story running through the novel as well.
The un-named protagonist, (we never learn his name) , is a particularly unappealing character (massive understatement), he has been a rapist during World War 2, he bullies and maimes and eventually kills while in prison. On the other hand his half-brother Lev is a thoroughly decent, gentle and humane character, a pacifist even. He is also physically ugly. He has a very tough time in prison. He arrives later than his brother by which time the half brother is an old hand.

I suppose the novel is moving in parts, there is some well done dark comedy; Amis is undoubtedly a brilliant writer but truly for my part I could not honestly recommend a book so wearingly bleak as this one. The protagonist has to rate as one of the least appealing fictional characters I have ever come across.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think 'Purple America' by 'The Ice Storm' author could well tie for the Most Bleak & Joyless Book award. Brilliantly written but dark subject matter and should come with a warning and should not be attempted unless you are at your most mentally healthy and optimistically-spirited!