Koba the Dread
By Martin Amis
CAPE pounds 16.99
Martin Amis has been hammered by critics into a tiny ball of bloody gunk over the last few months. Reviewers have shown a distasteful relish as they exile Amis's latest tome to Siberia. Yet the most prevalent criticism of Amis is misplaced. Why bother, ask many commentators, expending moral indignation on a totalitarian dictator who is universally despised? Why is a man who once wrote with commendable speed and passion about nuclear weapons - at a time when they were the most important issue on earth - now giving us 400 pages about arcane debates between far-left intellectuals? Who, today, are the Stalinists who must be denounced?
These critics damn themselves from their own mouths. Nobody asks why we need to be constantly reminded of the Holocaust. Nobody should ask it of Stalin's crimes, which killed over 20m people. The very fact that these questions are being openly asked is a sign that public education about Stalin's Terror is still desperately needed. Amis opens the book by quoting from Robert Conquest's book, The Harvest of Sorrow, which details the Stalinist era: "We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about 20 lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book." Amis then tells us: "That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long."
And Amis does not shy away, either, from showing that the evils of Stalin stem directly from Lenin. The dictator - still lauded by Christopher Hitchens, a fact that depresses me beyond measure because I greatly admire the Hitch - "bequeathed to his successors a fully functioning police state". This is a topic that needs to be written about by as many people as possible, and Amis - who has undeniably been a powerful and eloquent journalistic voice in the past, not least in The Moronic Inferno - is to be congratulated. Sadly, however, the choice of subject matter is the sole admirable aspect of this work.
Amis decides to interpret Stalin's crimes from a personal perspective. Of course, the perspective of an individual caught up in tyranny can be the most powerful of all: just look at Anne Frank or Jung Chang. Amis tries to affect their sombre tone, and clearly feels that he too has tasted, personally, some of Russia's nightmare. This is not because he was there under Stalin. Indeed, on the evidence of this book, he hasn't even bothered to go and talk to people who were there, nor to see the places where they were imprisoned, tortured, burned or starved. He hasn't gone to the world's remaining Stalinist state, North Korea (unlike Christopher Hitchens, whom he spends pages and pages excoriating).
No, Amis thinks he has participated in the last century's worst tragedy for two reasons. Some of his family and friends were tenuously linked to the distant and unimportant foreign support for Stalin. A bit. Oh, and he knows a few people who have died, of natural causes, in one of the most stable states in the world. An Englishman (Amis's father, the mediocre and now largely unread novelist Kingsley) who sympathised with communism in the 1940s was not, even remotely, like a member of the Cheka. A woman (Amis's sister, Sally) …