House of Meetings

House of Meetings

by Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, HK$240

Of the literary novelists writing today, Martin Amis is probably the most scrutinised. Since making his name at the age of 25 with The Rachel Papers, a brashly written comic debut, Amis has received a level of public attention unusual for a writer whose prose is at times unabashedly convoluted.

Further successes, including 1989's Money, cemented his place as a populariser of the comic novel as an art form. But this rising profile saw Amis become an object of national fascination: spats with friends such as Julian Barnes, a failed marriage and even much publicised cosmetic dental surgery all made headlines in his native England. Amis' public figure soon overshadowed his writing and a chorus of critics responded to his last novel, 2003's Yellow Dog, with suggestions that his once formidable talent had been lost to his celebrity.

House of Meetings, a confessional memoir set in the Soviet Union, is an attempt to reclaim his reputation as Britain's most original author.

In this latest offering, Amis' unnamed narrator is an octogenarian Russian emigre, who spent 10 years as a political prisoner - arrested to fulfil a government quota - in a Soviet gulag in the Arctic Circle before leaving for the US on his release. The novel takes the form of a letter to his American stepdaughter, written on his first return to Russia in 2004. Set partly against the backdrop of the Beslan school massacre, the letter is an at times disjointed recollection of his violent gulag experience, the story of his and his brother's love for the same Jewish woman and musings on contemporary Russian society.

Amis has been blessed with the confounding ability to reduce issues of seemingly irreducible emotional complexity to little more than a pithy aphorism, a talent that has made him the most frequently imitated writer in the modern era. Of the Russian prison, Amis' narrator writes: 'In the gulag, it was not the case that people died like flies. Rather, flies died like people.' Amis fans will find no shortage of such observations and asides that make his early novels so remarkable.

In the context of the horror of the Soviet gulag, however, Amis' trademark style seems more glib than profound (reminding of his father Kingsley's - himself one of the great comic writers of the modern age - explanation for why he never read his son's novels, when he lamented Martin's compulsive need to demonstrate his command of the English language).

Amis' early fast-paced comic novels were well suited to his distracting maximalist prose, where style was just as important, if not more so, than narrative.

In writing about the Russian labour camps and the drastic failure of the Soviet experiment, however, Amis invites comparisons with Russian writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his own detailed first-hand accounts of the tragedy of the gulag, most memorably One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn's orderly narratives drew their power from a tone of understatement and a sense of gravitas. By comparison, Amis' account seems almost flippant.

The reader is often struck by the suspicion that the narrator is merely a proxy for the author's clever allusions and sideways glances.

Coming in at under 200 pages, and spanning half a century, one wonders why Amis has chosen to give the issue of Soviet oppression such an unserious treatment, given his own knowledge of the subject - in 2002 he wrote a non-fiction account of Stalin's purges, Koba the Dread - and the vast potential for a deeper account.

Amis has foregone the possibility of fully exploring his subject matter both in scope and style and the end result feels more like a short story than a novel. One suspects that this was not lost on Jonathan Cape, Amis' publisher, which only recently jettisoned its plan to package two short stories - about the unrelated subjects of the September 11 hijackers and Saddam Hussein's body doubles - along with this novel.

Ultimately, House of Meetings, although in itself a compelling story, seems to be an unfortunate exercise in wasted potential.