A tale of two brothers in the gulag

In what would seem to be a loving gesture, an older brother prepares a bridal feast and has it sent to the honeymoon cottage where his half-brother and his wife are staying. But not everything is what it seems.

The couple aren't exactly newlyweds: Lev and Zoya have been married for eight years, although they haven't seen each other in all that time – because both the "groom" and the "best man" are political prisoners in the Soviet gulag.

The House of Meetings (also the novel's title) is a frozen log cabin with one dirty gray blanket and a flower someone stuffed into a test tube. The feast, which took Lev's brother days to gather, consists of "two fist-sized lumps of bread, a whole herring (slightly green around the edges), and the big jug of cold broth with at least four or five beads of fat set into its surface."

Oh, and the brother is consumed with jealousy and lust for his sister-in-law.

What happens that night in the "House of Meetings" changes the course of all three lives – and, as far as the older brother is concerned, the fate of Russia itself. As he writes, a little too portentously, to his adopted daughter: "I was there when my country started to die: the night of July 31, 1956, in the House of Meetings, just above the sixty-ninth parallel."

Now in his 80s, the narrator (who calls himself "a rowdier version of the Ancient Mariner"), is on a pilgrimage back to Russia, carrying with him an unopened letter. He's writing his memoir while on a half-deserted cruise ship to Siberia. "The Gulag tour, so the purser tells me, never quite caught on...."

For me, the most important books about the forced labor camps, and the estimated 30 million people who endured them, remain nonfiction: Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" obviously, as well as a book Martin Amis himself characterizes as "magisterial" in his acknowledgments, Anne Applebaum's 2003 "Gulag: A History."

But Amis, who has also written a book of essays on the subject, is the second British writer in as many years to create an impressive – and impressively disturbing – work of fiction using the Soviet penal system as a backdrop.

In "The People's Act of Love," James Meek was dealing with transgressive horrors. Amis confines himself to the more mundane forms of violence and torture practiced in the camps. This is not to say that "House of Meetings" is for the squeamish; it's not set in the gulag for nothing.

The story starts in 1948, when Lev, an aspiring poet, arrives at the same camp as his half-brother, a World War II veteran. Amis lays out the pecking order in "our very own Animal Farm" and details the brutal war going on between two factions with impressive economy.

Even though this isn't one of the "hungry" years, one in 10 prisoners will still die, and the narrator fears Lev will be one of them.

"An actuary might put it this way: if there were 10 Levs in Norlag in 1948, then one of them was going to die. That still didn't mean that he had a good chance of surviving his 10-year-sentence. It meant that he had a good chance of surviving 1948. Do the math, and his prospects were exactly zero."

While the men's years in Norlag are extremely, um, vivid, the female characters get shorter shrift. Zoya is your basic bombshell, with few genuine characteristics to raise her above the level of a cliché; and the adopted daughter exists primarily as a literary device.

Also, the narrator (you really can't call him the hero) is admittedly fond of sweeping generalizations and of sharing details that no daughter – adopted or otherwise – would ever want to hear from her dad.

For starters, during World War II, the war hero "raped his way across what would become Eastern Germany." Nor is he exactly stricken with remorse (about that, anyway). His "defense" is twofold: 1) everyone else was doing it and 2) at least he didn't kill the women afterward.

As his narrator puzzles over what he calls Russian heavy-handedness, Amis draws parallels between the Soviet era and recent Russian tragedies: the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, in which authorities gassed civilians as well as the terrorists; and the 2004 Beslan school siege, where 344 civilians, 186 of them children, died.

The pointlessness of so much human misery, both historical and present-day, is what ultimately shakes the narrator: "The rationale for slave labor, by the way, was as follows.... It helped keep the people terrorized, and, far more importantly, it made money. But it didn't make money, it never made money. It lost money."

Unfortunately, the secret of what went on in the "House of Meetings," and what's contained in the letter the narrator has carried with him for two decades don't pack the necessary revelatory punch.

So the story ends with a muted fizzle. But as long as Amis's characters stay in the gulag, the book is on frozen solid ground.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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