Martin Amis's newest book, House of Meetings, is a short novel that purportedly describes conditions inside a Soviet forced labour camp. A sick and malingering prisoner is confined to an isolation chamber, where he squats on a bench for a week over 'knee-deep bilge'. A blind-drunk guard, a woman-beater, spends the night outside at forty degrees below - and wakes up, frost-mangled, without any hands. The inmates hack one another apart with machine-tools. There are 'vicings, awlings, lathings, manic jackhammerings, atrocious chisellings'. It's notable that the first and last of these particular gerunds - 'vicings', 'chisellings' - have a specific metaphorical purchase: they allude to the male jaw. Reaching for an analogy to sum up the violence, the narrator recalls a crocodile fight he once saw in a zoo: a sudden flailing, a terrible whiplash; then, 'after half a second', one of the crocs is over in the corner, 'rigid and half-dead with shock', its upper jaw missing. Prisoners on prisoners, guards on prisoners, prisoners on guards: it's peculiar to find a polemicist who - plainly - wants irrefutably to prove the injustice of the Soviet system but doesn't at the same time take the polemical trouble to distinguish between victims and perpetrators of violence, and to deal with them accordingly. Amis isn't Dante. There are no heroic, reasonably virtuous political dissidents among the denizens of his Arctic inferno. Instead, there is an endless round of indiscriminate tortures, indiscriminately administered: those justly and Islamofascistically severed hands, those sexually frenzied jackhammerings, those mechanically vicious 'lathings'. Defacement and defilement are everywhere in Amis's camp. They infect the language.
LRB 4 January 2007 | PDF Download