Amidst the bravado is sorrow. The narrator laments the loss of his country, his love, and his life. These contradictions drive the narrative forward. The notion that this lengthy confession, covering about 60 years, should be delivered in the casual format of email adds irony. Both the narrator’s and Lev’s feelings for Zoya are fuelled by the feelings the brothers have for one another. There is sibling rivalry, and protectiveness, too, amidst the horrors of the camp, and afterwards.
The intensity of Amis’ camp descriptions provides a backdrop for the plot, which involves Lev’s stubborn pacifism, and the power that the memory of Zoya exerts over the brothers. Throughout the novel, metaphors are strikingly original and powerful:
All night I walked and crawled across a landscape overlaid with grit, a desert where each grain of sand, at some point or other, would have its time between my teeth.
The eloquence always drives plot or characterisation, remaining subtle, even with recurring images like the “Wild Dogs of Predposylov” that haunt him, or the anthropomorphism in his extended metaphors. As the plot moves away from the gulag and into the post-prison relationship between the brothers, Lev becomes frailer and less successful. He loses Zoya and remarries, suffering tragedy and disintegration, while the narrator grows wealthy and tries to confront his demons back “home”. There is a ring of truth and emotive power in the historical veracity of House of Meeting’s setting. Amis has done his research well, claiming that an English author can’t really write about Russia or do justice to the deep sense of history and personal involvement that underpin this book.
House of Meetings really isn’t meant to be a realistic picture of life in the Soviet gulag. For that, Amis’ Koba the Dread provides a more literal trip into the atrocities of this period, which Amis makes clear is poorly understood in the West. Instead House of Meetings uses the setting to explore character and what is left when our carefully constructed roles in life are stripped away.
Amis has every claim to being a master of that kind of exploration. In House of Meetings he has created an exciting novel, full of pathos that transcends the morality of nonfiction. It is a celebration of the beauty and horror of the human character in all of its frailties, and because of, rather than in spite of, contradiction.