31 January 2008
About a quarter of the way through
Amis makes it seem effortless. Perhaps it was: he must have been doing all the research for his book about Stalin and most of the first one-third of the novel presents a highly believable picture of the gulags in the 1940s. His narrator is… I’ve forgotten, some Russian aged 86 writing in 2004. By coincidence (and I wonder if this is two fingers raised at McEwan’s Saturday, set on the day of the anti-Iraq War march in London) there’s a World Event taking place as Igor or Vladimir writes his letter to his American stepdaughter. This time it’s the hostage-taking at No 1 School in Moscow, and it brings out Ivan’s almost amused cynicism perfectly. He knows how it will end, just as everybody else in Russia knows: with lots of kids dead. Plus ça change.
There ought to be a problem with Sergei’s superbly idiomatic English – shit, he even quotes Auden – but Amis foregoes realism in favour of style. Good man: as always, he has a terrific time messing about with the idiocies of whatever this year’s linguistic fashion happens to be. As in, ‘What’s all that about, as you would undoubtedly say.’ (I remember Stephen Fry making exactly the same comment on tv about a fortnight ago.) There have been references to Nabokov and Conrad, so maybe we’re to believe that Eastern Europeans have a better ear for English than we do ourselves. Or, as I suspect, Amis wants us to forget about it. Which we do.
So anyway. We’re in an Arctic gulag, and it’s horrible. The pecking order starts with convicted urban lowlifes and goes down from there…. Even the lowest of the low, the shit-eaters, have a pecking order among themselves. And the narrator (I’ve temporarily run out of Russian names to call him) gives us passing insights into the stupid system that got him and most of the other prisoners arrested. Somehow, he never sounds bitter…. but then, it’s over 50 years ago and Solzhenitsyn’s been done already. Things are unspeakably dreadful, obviously, so he concentrates on sex. Not doing it – even what he quaintly calls onanism is far beyond anybody in the camp – but thinking about it. And when his clever but awkward younger brother joins him we find out why, in the first chapter, his brother needs to use the camp bridal suite: he’s got married to the one woman everybody in the neighbourhood wanted. Tch. Brothers, eh?
To Part 2, Chapter 4…
…half-way through. And now Amis is really into his stride. Like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes this book mixes funny, quirky, vivid stories with almost unbelievable atrocities. Lev, the narrator’s brother, is becoming a more fully fleshed-out character. He is the good brother – the narrator never pretends to be such a thing, apologising in advance for the terrible things he is about to tell his stepdaughter. Like the way he, like more or less everybody else in the Red Army, raped his way through Germany; like the way he chooses to kill certain other prisoners in the gulag when it becomes clear that’s what seems to be the inevitable thing to do; like the erection he gets when he does it…. Lev refuses to be like this and, so far, survives anyway.
But in this world, and it’s becoming more and more plain that it’s the Soviet Union in microcosm, paradoxes and oxymorons are the norm. Lev sees his brother’s terrifying survival instinct as kind of touching: he never realised there was such a romantic in the family. It’s full of back-to-front logic like this, catch-22s – and extraordinary cameos, like the routinely vicious guard who’s too stunned by the loss of his own hands through frostbite to realise what’s happened, and what it will mean for him. (The scene in which he keeps forgetting that he can’t light cigarettes is comic when it has no right to be. Like so much else.) I haven’t come across the routine horrors of the human condition in extremis portrayed so convincingly – and outside the usual conventions of taste most ‘literary’ fiction goes for.
To the end of Part 2
I hadn’t realised I was so near to this point – and we’ve had the ‘House of Meetings’ chapter. We’d had a taster early on, but now Lev works impossibly hard – like a hero of the Soviet Union ‘from an earlier era’, as the narrator knowingly puts it – and gets to earn a conjugal visit. It’s seen from the narrator’s point of view: from the outside. And it seems… problematic. Not the sex – he manages that – but what it means now. A night together, to be followed by – what? More years of separation?
There are two time-schemes going on, of course, and suddenly that seems important. The narrator writes in post-Soviet Russia, with its uncertainties and idiocies. And shortly after the conjugal visit from ‘the Americas’ (their adolescent name for Lev’s wife – her waist is Panama, ho-ho) the gulag walls come down. And… now what? Once outside, Lev wants to go back in. In the gulag at least you know where you stand… or is it more complicated than that? Dunno.
To the end
I didn’t find the second half nearly as convincing as the first: as much of a romp through 50 years of history as anything else. This gives Amis plenty of chances to tell us what he’s learnt about – what? Well, everything to do with Russia in the last 50 years. The best aspect, for me, is the narrator’s attitude. Having spent years in the West following his reinstatement as a good Party member – he really is a Russian Everyman – he finds it doesn’t take long on his return to be re-‘Russified’: to reach a state of mind in which you are quite sure that, whatever the government line is, the opposite is true. He goes back to the disastrous siege at School No 1. Like him, everyone he speaks to assumes it was government-led from the beginning.
I suppose this is what Amis himself found out as he talked to Russians during his research trips. And the way he has his narrator refer to Putin through his first name and patronymic, just as he does every previous leader, confirms the continuity of Russian cynicism about their politicians.
It works less well as a novel. The characters seem too schematic: if the narrator represents one Russian type, then his brother Lev, with his refusal to let cynicism dictate his behaviour – must be another. If Amis wants him to stand for a more admirable, less pragmatic version of what it means to be human – and he’s certainly a likeable character – well, ok. But his actions, and his death, seem too neatly placed. (All the deaths are a bit like this. Nobody survives in the end, obviously, but Amis always seems to have a plan that needs to be stuck to. They have to die like this or like this…. It’s no accident that the good Party men – i.e. the worst cynics – outlive the others.)
But it’s never boring. Amis has got things to tell us, so he does that even if some aspects of his writing suffer. (Reviews of a recent collection of his essays and articles suggest this is the norm in his writing these days.) And it’s 100% pessimistic about where Russia is going…. In the novel’s scheme, it’s because all the best men are dead – and Amis is at pains to convince us it’s not just his characters who die before their time. He describes the ‘babushka villages’ where there are no men and no young people left, and the graph of the intersecting birth- and death-rate – the narrator calls it the Russian cross – is a recurring image: more people, of course, are dying than are being born.
One last thing. In a nod towards narrative credibility (one of the few) Amis tells us how the narrator learnt his own brand of slightly old-fashioned English: he met a pompous Englishwoman with a taste for second-rate poetry. Yeh, sure. And in fact, now I think about it, it’s obviously a joke. Really what I said at the start is more likely: Amis foregoes realism in favour of style. He’s not expecting us to believe it, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Why would he hobble himself with somebody else’s voice?