More than two decades ago, in Money, Martin Amis attempted one of fiction’s most daringly ambitious scenes when he wrote a rape scene as comedy. Most readers, I’d assume, read that scene in pieces, with breaks to blush at the line about to be crossed. But through great wit and through wise decisions, such as botching, and not completing, the act, he succeeded. It’s damn funny. And a good thing it worked out, too, otherwise Amis might still be known as that writer that finds rape funny.
Now Amis has again written a book with another rape scene, House of Meetings. While he doesn’t again attempt heretical laughter, he again pursues an almost unimaginable angle from which to view rape: from the rapist’s mind, semi-sympathetically. “No animal is ever sadder than the rapist,” the narrator states.
In truth, Amis doesn’t take this unexpected form of compassion far before guilt (and the properly weighted consideration for the victim’s side) takes over. This male guilt over male thoughts and male actions is essentially the theme of House of Meetings, just as it has been in much of Amis’ previous work. In his last novel, Yellow Dog, men were examined without the guise of repression that hides their true biological self, which the novel presents as a bullying, brawling, meat-eating, regressively sexual creature. Shortly before this, in 2002, Amis published Koba the Dread, a nonfiction contemplation of the “collapse of the value of human life” that occurred during Joseph Stalin’s capricious terrors. These stark themes conjoin in House of Meetings during periods when all violent urges were permitted complete realization: in the Soviet army of World War II and in a decade-long sentence in a Soviet forced-labor camp.
The unnamed narrator, a Russian born in 1919, now in his “high eighties,” is recalling his life, in which he was both a victim and a perpetrator, while on a cruise ship tour in the Artic Ocean. He’s committed what are very nearly unforgivable acts. “My dealings with women, I concede, were ruthless and shameless and faithless.” His most horrific acts (sparingly detailed) occurred as a soldier in the Soviet army engaged in total war against the Germans. “In the rapist army, everybody raped. […] And I raped, too.”
There’s a displacement between the ethics-seeking narrator and the brute acts he describes committing in his youth. These aren’t venial sins. Understandably, he asks early on for perspective, to “easternize your Western eyes, your Western heart.” “Don’t apply zero tolerance,” he pleads, “- a policy that requires zero thought. I ask you not to turn your face away.” Millions of Russian lives, he reminds us, had been lost during the German invasion; an overpowering urge for revenge after such unfathomable loss is inevitable, if still just as unforgivable as if Russia had invaded Germany first. The narrator doesn’t present this line of thought as a rationalization of his actions, only as a way to partially understand his past while he seeks redemption. “I paid a price, as I said, and I have work, specific work, ahead of me to pay it fully.”
The novel’s theme, of a man’s self-value when he acts immorally in a morally absent environment, is made personal through a love triangle, or “an isosceles triangle,” with the narrator at the furthest end and his half-brother and a mutual love interest at the two closer points. Physically weaker and uglier, it’s this brother, Lev, who will provide the example of ethical behavior that the narrator knows he should have followed. The woman they both desperately desire is Zoya, an amorously free Jewish woman whose charm and beauty instills a clench of obsession that never lessens.
The psychic hold she has over both men counteracts the immense shock of being arrested and sent to the gulag. After being rebuffed in his advances, the narrator concedes that “it didn’t feel like the worse thing that had ever happened to me when, ten weeks later, they gave me ten years.” Lev, however, applies patient seduction and eventually manages to marry Zoya, just briefly, before he, too, is arrested and joins his brother in the same forced-labor camp.
In the camps, human life devolves to its most basic, life-preserving postures. The camps themselves, of course, are intended to break a human apart, but the inmates in this novel seem to do the most harm. “[T]he tutelary powers lost their hold on the monopoly of violence. It was a time of spasm savagery …” Social groups form that forever war each other for better status, a better bed or, simply strike in the assumption that preemptive violence is the best defense against fellow inmates, fellow men. (“… there came through the mist the ear-hurting screams from the entrance to the toy factory, where two brutes … were being castrated by a gang of bitches in retaliation for a blinding earlier that day.”) The narrator, an unquestioning communist imprisoned for being a supposed fascist, survives through the same methods. “To me, by now, violence was a neutral instrument. It wasn’t even diplomacy by other means. It was currency, like tobacco, like bread.”
The moral counterpoint, Lev, manages to maintain his sense of humanity, the optional conviction that ethics matter even when they’re not enforced, throughout his term in the camp. Unlike his brother, Lev survives the camp without once hurting, let alone murdering, another prisoner. (The narrator takes the lives of three men, not all out of self defense.) But in order to both survive and remain ethical under constant physical trials (impossible work regimes, near starvation), Lev resigns from struggle, resigns his sense of self and, ultimately, resigns from life, which is negated every moment in the camp. When they’re released from prison (when Stalin is dead), the narrator’s actions seem to slowly catch up with him while Lev is unable to ever again regain any sense of livelihood.
There is no resolution in House of Meetings, at least not in the sense of coming to terms with the past. The narrator may have had a “reckoning” with his actions, as he mentions, but he won’t even accept the possibility of “closure” on all that he’s inflicted and all that he, his brother and his country have endured. The “transcendental hypocrisy” of the Soviet state, as Amis put it in Koba the Dread, the uncountable lives lost or ruined, stands without either understanding or recompense.
House of Meetings has all the elements of an equally disturbing and necessary novel, a novel you might not want to read twice but which you never entirely stop thinking about. But what’s missing is ordinary detail and regular real-time narration – the coloring in, the leading up – that enriches the story. Nearly every passage is worth underlining and may find a longer life as quotations in other works. But the book also feels like a collection of independent epithets that happen to cover the same topic. Each of the three primary characters are more or less fleshed out in themselves, but their relations to one another are only conveyed through brief montages. One sentence catches us up on the two brothers’ relationship as quickly as possible: “Lev and I became closer.” But the reader doesn’t become closer to Lev. The reader has to take the narrator’s word for it. At 196 large-type-faced pages, the subject matter begs for a longer, slower treatment.