Koba The Dread: Laughter And The Twenty Million
- Publication Date:
- 04 September 2003
Showing 1-3 out of 3 reviews.
Koba is Stalin. The author is the son of Kingsley Amis, who was at a time a British communist, but later became conservative, and a friend of Robert Conquest, who wrote The Great Terror about the collectivization and other terrors of Stalin’s regime. The book is about the terror, but in a personal way of trying to explain how his father and other intellectuals of the between war periods been attracted to the Soviet Union. The stories of the famine in the Ukraine, and of the camps, are horrific, and the personal asides interesting. The laughter is the concept that the Russian people always regarded the regime as a sick joke.
At the time I read this book, I did not yet realise that it is mainly a report of a literary journey into the gulag. Although Amis complemented it with his sarcasm, outrage and loose cross-referring, this book is for a large part a recap of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and other sources like Shalamov's superb Kolyma Tales. Something like a highly subjective syllabus: informative yet second-hand. What it adds to the existing literature is an essayistic dimension characteristic of Amis: a plaint against his fathers both biological and literary, as well as an interesting question the historians fail to ask: how can the Soviet "twenty million" be ridiculous to us Westerners, when the familiar "six million" is anything but? Hence the subtitle "Laughter and the Twenty Million".
Martin Amis' new book does three things: Firstly, it concisely and interestingly catalogues the evils of Stalin's communist regime (and to an extent Lenin's and what might have been in Trotsky's). An excellent service for those of us, like me, who don't fancy slogging through Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, vols. I, II and III, Robert Conquest's several books on Russia, and the other numerous sources which Amis cites, frequently at some length. It is solely an overview, though: Amis contributes not a single new fact or assertion to the field of writing which is already out there. Occasionally he does stoop to administer a swift, unnecessary kick to Stalin's corpse in the form of some rather childish name-calling.Secondly, on the strength of the first, it makes the very valid point (which, though, has been made elsewhere) that the western intelligentsia (and especially, quelle surprise, the western liberal intelligentsia) is utterly hypocritical in its analysis and commentary on the "good old" communist regime compared to, say, Hitler's Nazi regime. No-one sees the funny side of the Holocaust, but the soviets, perhaps because of their appealing ideology, have been rather let off for the terrors of Stalin's regime. This point is well worth repeating, and I guess it's enough of a hook to hang a book around, but (especially since it's not an original thought) 'tis but a single swallow and not a summer. Thirdly, Koba the Dread contains some unordered, pompous, not obviously relevant and frankly bizarre pontifications, an extract of some personal correspondence presenting just Amis' side of an argument with a left-leaning colleague (it's noteworthy that Amis is not sporting enough to include - or even refer to - the colleague's rebuttal) and, most inexplicably of all, an open letter to his own, deceased, father (ending, ludicrously enough, "Your middle child hails you and embraces you"). All of this can only have been included on the presupposition that the author's personal life and views would be found interesting and worthwhile simply on account of who he is, whose son he was (Kingsley's, in case you didn't know) and who he is friends with (Kinglsey's mates, mostly). Then, without any hint of justification, Amis introduces his own sister's recent death into proceedings, despite acknowledging (to his dead father) "Sally has, of course, nothing whatever in common with [the victims of Stalin's regime]." In short, in this last 32 page section of the book, Martin Amis totally blows his cover. What on earth was he thinking? More to the point, what was his editor thinking? Without this section, Koba runs to 242 pages: perhaps it was necessary to pad out to justify the price of a hard back book? Or is this author such a significant literary figure nowadays that he is beholden to no-one? Perhaps no-one dared stand up to him, for fear of the reprisals...?In case you were wondering (well, I was), the book's silly title can be explained thus: "Koba" was Stalin's childhood nickname. "... the Dread" is a relatively unused variant on "... the Terrible", as in "Ivan the Terrible". So, Koba the Dread; Josef the Terrible, see? Martin, how come you didn't call your book "Josef the Terrible"?
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