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Books

“House of Meetings” (2004) by Martin Amis. “Escape Routes for Beginners” (2005) by Kira Cochrane. “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” (2007) by Mohammed Hanif

I really enjoyed this Martin Amis book, which is about a man reflecting over his life in Soviet Russia, first as a war hero, then as a Gulag inmate and, after release living through the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the USSR

 

The book is presented as a series of letters from the protagonist to his stepdaughter in America, and this structure enables Amis to build the plot in a traditional manner, a blessed relief from the all over the place modern style of literary fiction.

 

This is a bread and butter English novel. Hurrah!

 

Amis is a very irritating man when you see him interviewed, and whilst I can see where he is coming from with some of his anti Islamic sentiments, the chillingly calm way in which he expresses quite incendiary views is very un nerving.

 

I think I succeeded in burying my prejudices about the man because as soon as the first chapter was over I had banished his irritating Toff way of speaking from my mind, which is credit to very good writing.

 

 Amis’ descriptions of Gulag life is especially good, and the prose is simple but harrowingly effective as he talks about “spasms of frenzied hunger” and the comfort of the foetal position when the cold becomes un bearable, and it is as convincing as when you read Primo Levi’s “This is a Man” which is about how the Italian survived Auschwitz.

 

Life in the Soviet Union is seen as just crushingly average, poverty of aspiration as the State controls your destiny seems to be the most common experience for the majority of it’s citizens.

 

Western life has many bad points, mainly inequality of opportunity, but at least people don’t just drift around in a sea of greyness, which is what Amis and other writers such as Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Shokolov show the Russian people, in many ways so spirited as being emotionally sterilised and crushed which may go someway to explaining their love affair with the vodka bottle, and periodic bursts of anti semitism. All that angst and pent up disappointment. It has to come out somehow.

 

In The House Of Meetings Amis imagines what would happen if the inmates were allowed conjugal visits, and the anti climax that would ensue. In this case the narrator’s brother shows up in the Gulag and it transpires that he took the meaning of “look after my girlfriend whilst I’m away” a bit too literally.

 

But given her portrayal as a feisty and free spirited artist, it’s no wonder younger brother was led off the straight and narrow.

 

The characters are full blooded, interesting and all flawed in some way, which is just like life itself making you care what happens to them.

 

This isn’t rated as one of his best when you read the user comments on Amazon, so I will be checking Amis out again real soon, despite his annoying way of expressing himself on TV.

 

Despite sounding like a drippy Lefty jerk I am prepared to say that I try to balance my literally intake along gender and cultural lines. Yow. Cringe.

 

Kira Cochrane is a journalist I really admire because she is progressive about the role of women in Society, but is not adverse to a bit of self deprivation via her really funny attempts at dieting this year, recounted in her Gruniard columns.

 

And her novel Escape Routes for Beginners cements her role in my eyes at least, as a progressive woman writing about female issues, here over three generations from the poverty and degredation of hispanic immigrants in 1900’s LA to a girl growing up with neurotic parents in the ‘Sixties, but with a sense of perspective, dark irony and a realistic view of inter gender and generational realtionships.

 

Cochrane contextualises what happens to women in Society without being judgemental about men, rather about the system which empowers certain types of males to oppress females. Therefore she avoids lecturing us lads, and makes this book and enjoyable and challenging read for allcomers.

 

The assassination of General Zia, another in a series of events that have thrown Pakistan into turmoil at regular intervals since independence, may not, at first sight seem a subject full of laughs but in the zany spirit of Catch 22 we follow the antics of a young Officer called Ali Shigri who is set to avenge the suicide of his high ranking father, and event he blames on President.

 

Various calamities ensue and we meet a rich circus of bonkers characters, including a cameo from Osama Bin Laden (at a July 4th do where he is thanking his US paymasters at the height of the USSR/ Afghan War) a sugar-crazed crow and the obligatory sadistically mad army officer intent on instilling discipline into his soporific conscripted recruits.

 

 Geo political analysis it aint, but playful, manic, surreal and funny it most certainly is.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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