“The love story is triangular in shape,” writes Martin Amis in “House of Meetings,” his 11th novel. “And the triangle is not equilateral.”
The short novel is, in fact, a rather oddly warped love story, albeit mingled with – and sometimes overpowered by – a self-conscious, self-righteous history lesson.
“House of Meetings” is an attempt by Amis, an Englishman, to write a thoroughly Russian novel – a difficult enough pursuit in itself. But to make that novel a love story and to set it in the prison camps of the Soviet Gulag, is perhaps one of the more ambitious literary tasks to be attempted in recent years.
The unnamed narrator of “House of Meetings” is an octogenarian and a survivor of the Norlag detention facility, a Soviet work camp in Siberia. Despite serving honorably in the Red Army during World War II, he was charged with political subversion and sent away to Norlag in 1946, at the height of an all-but-unrequited love affair with the vibrant, decidedly un-Russian, Zoya.
Two years later, the narrator’s half-brother Lev arrived at Norlag, bearing news of his marriage to Zoya. Together, the siblings struggle through the next eight years of camp life.
As their time at Norlag neared its end, however, Zoya finally managed to negotiate the seas of paperwork necessary for a conjugal visit with Lev at the House of Meetings. The visit, only one night long, would haunt all three of them in the decades to come.
Now, after 50 years of “normal” life, the narrator has returned to Siberia on the “Gulag tour,” seeking to understand the phenomenon of the work camps and unravel the mystery of his time there. The only survivor of the ill-fated threesome,
surrounded by death and what he sees as the slow and ongoing suicide of the entire Russian people, the narrator must come to grips with the secret of the House of Meetings before he can face his own mortality.
While it would be something of an overstatement to place Martin Amis in the company of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, “House of Meetings” does – at times – feel Russian. It is in these moments that the novel becomes more story than schoolbook, more love song than lesson. But even as a history lesson, with its detention centers and unwinnable wars, “House of Meetings” has much to offer in these uncertain times.
“If it was up to me,” says the narrator, “I’d demand a formal apology, in writing, for the 10th century; and for all the others in between.”
Both Amis and his narrator are wracked by this absence of apology, this need for closure.
Dare we let ourselves continue on the same course? Dare we queue up to join their ranks?
“Say sorry, someone,” writes Amis. “Someone tell me they’re sorry. Go on. Cry me the Volga, cry me the Yenisei, cry me the Moscow River.”
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.