Martin Amis, House of Meetings, 2007.
For all of its conceits, the post-modernist treatment of narrative, which eschews a traditional beginning, middle and end, does nevertheless convey the mindset of the tortured. Psychiatrists tell us that traumatic events are remembered, not in coherent order, but in jumbled flashbacks. The mind apparently cannot structure the unendurable into a storyline.
The figures most associated with flashbacking terror are the Vietnam Vet and the Holocaust survivor. It is in reality the former inmate of the Soviet gulag system, those graying figures who today jump at knocks on the door or accidental flashlights in the eyes, who has been ignored.
Martin Amis seeks to correct this. He is able to convey the unique horror of Soviet labor camps (imagine an American warden in the 1950s allowing hardened criminals to terrorize en masse blacklisted prisoners). The arbitrariness of the arrests are also effectively conveyed: solid Communist citizens suddenly find themselves to be fascists when they praise America or criticize the endless required meetings.
Amis’ métier, irony, has never been used to fuller effect. The real fascists in 1946 target the Jews Hitler didn’t get to, and all in the name of anti-fascism. The camp Norlag is a real-life Animal Farm, with inmates designated by their animal behavior (pigs, brutes, bitches) and not their class level or party position. Whole groups of prisoners walk on all fours and eat from trash. The reality of Norlag is actually worse than Orwell’s novel—Napoleon’s guard-dogs attacked at this command, while the animals of Norlag are in constant warfare with each other. But such is the hunger in the camp that the image the reader takes away from the novel isn’t the sounds of a lone prisoner being castrated by a group, but that of 300 prisoners eating imaginary food in their sleep.
Amis is able to tap into a human instinct that co-exists in even those reduced to an animal-state: that the best revenge for the oppressed is to survive their tormentors. The narrator of the novel, whose service in the Red Army during World War II included raping German women, is hardly a model citizen. But even when those most committed to the regime were imprisoned by it for years shows the insanity of the Soviet system during Cold War times.
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