Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



House of Meetings by Martin Amis




(Mildly Recommended)




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In his latest novel, House of Meetings, Martin Amis presents life in a Soviet slave labor camp from the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s. The tormented narrator reflects on his life, especially in the gulag, his relationship with his younger brother, Lev, who was also in the camp, and Zoya, whom the narrator loved, but who married Lev. The novel is an exploration of evil, and the disintegration of the individual and the state. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “The War Between the Brutes and the Bitches,” pp. 26-29:


My brother Lev came to Norlag in February 1948 (I was already there), at the height of the war between the brutes and the bitches. He came at night. I recognized him instantly, in a crowd and at a distance, because a sibling, Venus, far more tellingly than a child, displaces a fixed amount of air. A child grows, while its parent remains static in space. With brothers it is always the same difference.

I was having a smoke with Semyon and Johnreed on the roof of the cement works, and I saw Lev filing into the dis­infection block, which stood foolishly exposed by its great battery of encaged lightbulbs. Forty minutes later he filed into the yard. He was naked but for the catsuit of thick white ointment they hosed you down with, for the purga­tion of small vermin; the caustic fire it generated on the sur­face of the skin did nothing to ease the galvanic shivering caused by thirty degrees of frost. He stumbled (he was nightblind), and went down on all fours, and the cold really took him: he looked like a hairless dog trying to shake itself dry. Then he got to his feet and stood there, holding some­thing in his cupped hands—something precious. I kept back.

This was the year when the tutelary powers lost their hold on the monopoly of violence. It was a time of spasm savagery, with brute going at bitch and bitch going at brute. The factions had, at their disposal, a toolshop each, and this set the tone of their encounters: warm work with the span­ner and the pliers, the handspike and the crowbar, vicings, awlings, lathings, manic jackhammerings, atrocious chisel­ings. Even as Lev jogged across the yard to the infirmary, there came through the mist the ear-hurting screams from the entrance to the toy factory, where two brutes (we later learned) were being castrated by a gang of bitches armed with whipsaws, in retaliation for a blinding earlier that day.

The war between the brutes and the bitches was a civil war, because the brutes and the bitches were, alike, urkas. A social substratum of hereditary criminals, the urkas had been in existence for centuries—but invisibly They were fugitive in both senses: on the run, and quick to disappear. Outside in the land of freedom you would glimpse them rarely, and with callow wonder, as a child glimpses the half-hidden figures in the wings at a circus or a fairground: a world of Siamese twins and mermen and bearded ladies, of monstrous tattoos and scarifications, a world of coded chaos. You could hear them, too, sometimes: in a Moscow backstreet it could stop you dead—the urka whistle, scan­dalously shrill (and involving, you felt sure, indecent use of the tongue). On the outside, the urkas were a spectral underclass. In the camps, of course, they formed a conspicuous and vociferous elite. But now they were at war.

This was how power was distributed in our animal farm. At the top were the pigs—the janitoriat of administrators and guards. Next came the urkas: designated as “socially friendly elements,” they had the status of trusties who, moreover, did no work. Beneath the urkas were the snakes— the informers, the one-in-tens—and beneath the snakes were the leeches, bourgeois fraudsters (counterfeiters and embezzlers and the like). Close to the bottom of the pyra­mid came the fascists, the counters, the fifty-eighters, the enemies of the people, the politicals. Then you got the locusts, the juveniles, the little calibans: by-blows of revolu­tion, displacement, and terror, they were the feral orphans of the Soviet experiment. Without their nonsensical laws and protocols, the urkas would have been just like the locusts, only bigger. The locusts had no norms at all.

Finally, right down there in the dust were the shiteaters, the goners, the wicks; they couldn’t work anymore, and they could no longer bear the pains of hunger, so they feebly brawled over the stops and the garbage. Like my brother, I was a “socially hostile element,” a political, a fascist. Need­less to say, I was not a fascist. I was a Communist. And a Communist I remained until the early afternoon of August 1, 1956. There were also animals, real animals, in our animal farm. Dogs.

The urka civil war was a consequence of Moscow’s attempt to undermine urka power and urka idleness. Its pol­icy was to promote the urkas still further: to give them, in exchange for certain duties, pay and privileges close to those of the janitoriat. The bitches were the urkas who wanted to stop being urkas and start being pigs; the brutes were the urkas who wanted to go on being urkas. It looked good for us at first, when the war broke out. Suddenly the urkas had something else to do with their inexhaustible free time— something other than torturing the fascists, their premier activity. But now the war between the brutes and the bitches was getting out of control. Having lost their monopoly of violence, the pigs applied yet more violence. There was a wildness and randomness in the air that was beginning to feel almost abstract.

Venus. Remember how disappointed you were by the crocodiles in the reptile house at the zoo—because “the lizards never moved”? Imagine that hibernatory quiet, that noisome stasis. Then comes a whiplash, a convulsion of fan­tastic instantaneity; and after half a second one of the croc­odiles is over in the corner, rigid and half-dead with shock, and missing its upper jaw. That was the war between the brutes and the bitches.

Now, when I talk, here and elsewhere, of Moscow and its so-called policies, I do so with the assurance of informed hindsight. But at the time we had no idea what was going on. We never had any idea what was going on.


In much of life, we have no idea at a moment in time, of what is going on. Amis capitalizes on that in House of Meetings, and takes readers through an assessment of morality that is grim to read and sad to reflect on. Amis’ writing is superb, but after closing the last page, I felt like some of the evil on the page had entered me.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2007 issue of Executive Times


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