If the 20th century can be called the American Century, it might equally be called the Russian anti-Century. Beginning with its culture-rending Revolution and considerable losses in the First World War, things got decidedly worse for the country during World War II, with the Soviet Union racking up more than 20 million military and civilian dead. From the 1930s until his death in 1953, Stalin eliminated millions more for perceived crimes against the Soviet experiment. Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia has been mired in economic, political and social problems of seemingly insurmountable proportions, its population and prospects dwindling. Knowing what we now know, it is hard to believe that the West once lived in daily fear of this lumbering bear.
It is against this grim backdrop of unceasing Russian tragedy that British bad boy novelist Martin Amis sets his compelling, though disturbing, new novel, House of Meetings. The novel is centered on events that occur when two half brothers meet at a prison labor camp, but the driving engine of the story is largely the fact that the two men are in love with the same woman. Told by the unnamed elder brother in a letter some 50 years after the main events, the narrative is shaped by hindsight and freighted with atonement, but it is also pervaded by a disquieting cynicism that makes it less a story about love and more one of jealousy, enmity and unfulfilled desire.
Lev, the younger brother, arrives at the labor camp above the Arctic Circle in February 1948, his crime a darkly laughable misinterpretation of words. His brother has been in the gulag for some time, and he understands how things work in the brutal, factional camp society. A poet, Lev is less equipped for the harsh realities of the camp than his tougher, less sentimental brother (who is not ashamed to admit that he raped his way across Europe at the end of the war). Older brother tries to protect younger, but the bond of brotherhood is irreparably damaged when Lev announces that, in his brother's absence, he has married Zoya, a shapely, sexually accommodating Jewish girl that they both desired.
Over the next eight years, the brothers' relationship shifts back and forth between camaraderie and contempt, with Lev, a self-declared camp pacifist, becoming increasingly isolated. When constraints are loosened after Stalin's death, conjugal visits are permitted for the first time, and Zoya makes the journey to the camp. After his intimate encounter with Zoya, however, Lev emerges from the House of Meetings emotionally bereft, a fact that his brother, somewhat gleefully, chalks up to an inability to perform sexually. This event has a profound effect on the characters' lives. It's not until long after their release from camp, and some 20 years after Lev's death, that the narrator (and the reader) finally learns what really happened not only on that fateful night in the House of Meetings, but to his brother's broken soul. It is a metaphor for Russia's own broken soul, of course, and any revelations do little to assuage the narrator's bitterness. Russia is dying, he says in the end. And I am glad. Amis, who in recent years has been faulted for over-the-top literary pyrotechnics, tones it down here, trusting that less is more. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about House of Meetings is that it reads as if it were written by a Russian, then translated into English. Amis manages to capture not only the dehumanizing reality of the gulag, but also the ever-changing climate in Russia, both during and after Soviet system. Events like the misguided war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the school hostage massacre by Chechen extremists in 2004 (two more tragedies to add to the list) lend verisimilitude to the narrative. House of Meetings beautifully conveys the heartbreak of Russia's hereditary misfortune, the foreboding sense of doom that has colored much of its story thus far.
Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.