Well, of course, the general rule would be to stay away from Western books dealing with Eastern issues. Particularly when the issues are as sensitive as war, gulag, Stalin’s regime, etc. I was wary, obviously. In fact, I only got into House of Meetings after all the others had long been read – or reread. And that, yes, that includes Yellow Dog.
But of course House of Meetings is better than Yellow Dog, even though I have a feeling that the critical response would have been a lot tougher had it not been for the heavy artistic flop that was the 2003 novel (and I of course completely dismiss Amis’s forced claims that he considers Yellow Dog one of his three of four best books – that’s just ridiculous). House of Meetings is a good little novel. Not overwhelmingly good, and by Amis’s past standards it’s a mere trifle – but what a compelling, thoughtfully conceived and exquisitely crafted trifle it is.
I don’t really know how it is for an Englishman, but I guess what I was looking for as I was going through the novel – was a different, Westernized, ‘corrupted’ angle on the things that have long looked kind of monochrome to me. So the insights are actually pretty exciting – Amis cleverly calling Chechnya ‘organically insane’, Amis on those classic Russian novels (where each chapter begins with a family story), Amis presenting a roundup of national traits (all negative, but here you’d have to consider the twisted, broken morality of the book’s main character):
- ‘freedom from all responsibility and scruple’
- ‘the energetic championship of views and beliefs that are not only irreconcilable but also mutually exclusive’
- ‘the weakness for a humour of squalor and cynicism’
- ‘the tendency to speak most passionately when being most insincere’
-‘ thirst for abstract argument - abstract to the point of pretention at unlikely moments (in the middle of a prison stampede, at the climax of a cholera riot, in the most sepulchral phase of a terror famine)’.
I think I would find it impossible to disagree with any of those.
A couple of words about the plot. The novel is presented in the form of a memoir written by a former inmate of an Arctic gulag (the person who now, we understand, is an American citizen). But it’s not even the camp miseries that are at the heart of House of Meetings (the book is certainly not as bleak or desperately detailed as a Solzhenitsyn novel). It’s more about a peculiar love triangle of the narrator, his brother and a rather salacious Jewish girl named Zoya. The triangle that is filtered through the biting and bitter experience of Stalin’s rule (it’s worth mentioning that back in 2002 Amis had a book on Stalin’s Russia, titled Koba the Dread: Laughter and The Twenty Million – the one that caused some fiery arguments between Amis and Christopher Hitchens). The bitterness that in a completely twisted, perverted way makes the book’s fictional author look on the bright side at the end of the novel – and, typical Amis here, enjoy the image of his homeland dying.
At just under 200 pages, House of Meetings is one of Amis’s shorter novels. Think Time’s Arrow in terms of the theme and overall atmosphere; think Night Train in terms of presentation. Also, lacking his usual postmodern mind games and oddball witticisms (well, plenty of those, of course, but not nearly as oddball as before), House of Meetings is also one of his more accessible and, dare I say it, more straightforward creations. Which in a way makes its impact even more powerful and emotional. You feel the unfathomable, boundless anguish writhing inside the narrator; lost chances he never had. “They not only took our youth away, he writes, they also took away the men we were going to be”. Words all the more poignant when coming from a fucking Westerner who doesn’t have a fucking clue.