Amis has loved two men who have found reasons not to dismiss what happened after October 1917 in Russia as an inexcusable moral atrocity. These two are his late father, Kingsley Amis, and Christopher Hitchens. Kingsley Amis, before his spectacular conversion to the right, was a member of the Communist party from 1941 to 1956. Hitchens was never a Stalinist, but he stayed loyal to an intellectual Trotskyist view of the Bolshevik revolution, which honoured Lenin and blamed Stalin for deforming the revolution into a state-capitalist dictatorship. Amis is asking how could they have. But of course he is also asking how could I have, how can I continue to love them?It's a shame that this book is so subjective, more personal memoir than cultural critique, because the objective question it asks is as pertinent today--when we are asked to take Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders seriously--as it was twenty years ago: why is it that we treat those who embrace(d) Stalinism so much more charitably than those who embrace(d) Nazism, that we can laugh along with the former but not the latter? For Martin Amis this quandary arose when he listened to his friend, Christopher Hitchens, joke, to appreciative chuckles, about having spent time in a debating hall with "many an old comrade," which Hitch, having been a Trotskyite, defender of the USSR and hater of America until the aughts, meant literally:
Why is it? Why is it? If Christopher had referred to his many evenings with many "an old blackshirt," the audience would have ... Well, with such an affiliation in his past, Christopher would not be Christopher—or anyone else of the slightest distinction whatsoever. Is that the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache, between Satan and Beelzebub? One elicits spontaneous fury, and the other elicits spontaneous laughter? And what kind of laughter is it? It is, of course, the laughter of universal fondness for that old, old idea about the perfect society. It is also the laughter of forgetting. It forgets the demonic energy unconsciously embedded in that hope. It forgets the Twenty Million.Lest one think that his friend was "just" an anti-anti-Communist, as liberals who opposed the Cold War insist on being styled, he recounts the following:
'What about the famine?' I once asked him. 'There wasn't a famine,' he said, smiling slightly and lowering his gaze. 'There may have been occasional shortages....'Having seen the speaker on tv for three decades, the averted eyes are impossible to credit: Hitchens always took great joy in his own ideologies, no matter how repellent to decent folk. Complicating the matter for Mr. Amis is the fact, as cited in the review above, that his beloved father, the novelist Kingsley, had been a Communist into the mid-50s. Somehow, it took until the turn of the century for him to try and come to grips with their embrace of horror.
Were he to stick with exploring the question he has raised--why treat a Stalinist more respectfully than a Nazi--Mr. Amis could have penned a truly valuable essay, especially had he kept the focus on the value of comedy in assessing both. But he shifts to considering the crimes of the USSR--relying on the works of his father's friend, the great Sovietologist Robert Conquest--as if he were encountering them for the first time. And his outline of the work of Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov and others is not just late but is incomplete, often erroneous and embarrassingly self-centered. The mass murders of Communist regimes are not primarily evil because a reader finds them upsetting, but because of the actual victims. Likewise, the crimes of those who defended the murders are not made worse because you knew them, but because they excused the evil done to the victims.
Because Martin Amis makes this all so much about Martin Amis it is too easy for critics to make fun of him and dismiss the very real question from which he begins. But let us approach it afresh. The Left has called every Republican leader of my lifetime a racist, so their hatred of Donald Trump was inevitable. But it is to the credit of moderates of both parties that they too refuse to treat his genuine racism as if it were more politics. He is rightly and righteously denounced for his open Nativism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and various other racisms. This does not require that we term him a Nazi or compare him directly to Hitler--even if he kept Hitler's speeches on his nightstand and his father was a Klansman--it is enough that we don't relent in calling him out for his own evils. But, somehow, Democrats and the media hold the Communist-apologist Bernie Sanders to a lower standard. Among the horrifying stories to come out during this presidential campaign is the account of Alan Gross, who Senator Sanders visited in a Cuban prison:
"He said, quote: 'I don't know what's so wrong with this country,' " Gross recalled.Strong as the emotional urge is to view the Holocaust as sui generis, it simply is not morally serious to argue that the six million matter more than the 100 million dead that Communism piled into heaps. Yet people continue to tolerate advocates for the latter in a way we never would the former. And because Mr. Amis loses control of his own narrative he ultimately doesn't make much of a contribution to ending the sorry phenomenon.
-WIKIPEDIA: Martin Amis
-Martin Amis Web
-WIKIPEDIA: Koba the Dread
-BOOK SITE: Koba the Dread (Penguin Random House)
-EXCERPT: First Chapter of Koba the Dread
-ESSAY: The palace of the end: The first war of the Age of Proliferation will not be an oil-grab so much as an expression of pure power (Martin Amis, March 4, 2003, The Guardian)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Lightness at Midnight: Stalinism without irony (CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, SEPTEMBER 2002, The Atlantic)
Writing toward the very end of his life, a life that had included surprising Stalin himself by a refusal to confess, and the authorship of a novel—The Case of Comrade Tulayev—that somewhat anticipated Darkness at Noon, Victor Serge could still speak a bit defensively about the bankruptcy of socialism in the "midnight of the century" represented by the Hitler-Stalin pact. But he added,
-INTERVIEW: Martin Amis in Conversation with Olga Slavnikova (The New Yorker, 6/13/12)
-TRIBUTE: The Singular Robert Conquest (JAY NORDLINGER, September 10, 2015, National Review)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread by Martin Amis (Paul Berman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Anne Applebaum, Slate)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Neal Ascherson, The Guardian)
Amis has loved two men who have found reasons not to dismiss what happened after October 1917 in Russia as an inexcusable moral atrocity. These two are his late father, Kingsley Amis, and Christopher Hitchens. Kingsley Amis, before his spectacular conversion to the right, was a member of the Communist party from 1941 to 1956. Hitchens was never a Stalinist, but he stayed loyal to an intellectual Trotskyist view of the Bolshevik revolution, which honoured Lenin and blamed Stalin for deforming the revolution into a state-capitalist dictatorship. Amis is asking how could they have. But of course he is also asking how could I have, how can I continue to love them?
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Publishers Weekly)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Complete Review)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Charles Taylor, Salon)
-REVIEW: of Koba the Dread (Paul Daley, The Age)
-REVIEW: of House of Meetings by Martin Amis (Joan Acocella, the New Yorker)
-REVIEW: of House of Meetings (Thomas Mallon, Washinhgton Post)
-REVIEW: of THE SECOND PLANE: September 11: Terror and Boredom By Martin Amis (Warren Bass, Washington Post)
Book-related and General Links:
-EXCERPT: Robert Conquest: Sovietologist and Poet (DAVID PRYCE-JONES, April 28, 2020, National Review)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd