The House of Meetings
The very British Martin Amis took a special interest in Stalin’s USSR recently. And out of that particular interest and research came 2 books: one non-fiction (Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million – which I assume is – partly at least – dealing with concentration camps) and one work of fiction (The House of Meetings – which describes the lives of two brothers faced with the realities of WWII and the Norlag camp). This is probably why the novel is so good: it doesn’t bear the marks of outstretching reality and it certainly doesn’t attempt to romanticise a experience that is anything but exotic.
Like other characters in Mr. Amis’s books (at least the ones I’ve read so far) we aren’t dealing with a hero, but rather with an anti-hero, a deeply flawed person who, by the end of his life, doesn’t make an attempt to show remorse, regret or apologies, but simply tells of his reality. The short novel is constructed as a letter from the narrator to his American step-daughter Venus; while a second letter awaits in the narrator’s pocket to be read right before he dies, a letter from his brother Lev, that would explain the course their lives took after Norlag (and a trick which NYTimes renders somewhat forced and unnecessary – and, though I agree, I was still anxious to read it 😀 )
The story starts with the WWII experience, when the narrator raped his way across Europe(according to his own account) like the entire Russian army did; this kind of forceful possession with which his life started marked his entire evolution from then on. Upon his return, he leads a normal life for a while, with a few flings and a torch for his neighbour Zoya, a young Jewess who magnetically attracts all men. He is then sent to Norlag, a camp in the Siberian plain, where he will soon be reunited with this stuttering brother Lev, only to find him married to the beautiful Zoya. From then on, the brothers’ relationship will be complicated by the rivalry, by Lev’s weakness, by his brother’s (a brute, in the end) secret (more or less) protection, by the horror’s of the Gulag.
I find it pretty hard to retell the story partly because it’s quite intricate and partly because I feel like I’m diminishing it. So, for a real review, you can go here, from my part, I can say only one thing: it’s a compelling read and quite the page turner and it’s definitely worth spending time on it 🙂