In his superb memoir, Experience (2000), Martin Amis almost casually expends a terrific line in a minor footnote. Batting away a critic he describes as "humorless," he adds, "And by calling him humorless I mean to impugn his seriousness, categorically: such a man must rig up his probity ex nihilo." A book in which such an observation can occur in passing is a very rich and dense one. Amis has won and held the attention of an audience eager for something very like this in reverse—a synthesis of astonishing wit and moral assiduity. Even the farcical episodes of his fiction are set on the bristling frontiers of love and death and sex. With his other hand, so to speak, he has raised the standard of essayistic reviewing, mounting guard over our muscular but vulnerable English language and registering fastidious pain whenever it is hurt or insulted. It is no accident, because he intuits the strong connection between linguistic and political atrocity, that he has also composed short but concentrated meditations on the three great collapses of twentieth-century modernism and civilization. With Einstein's Monsters (1987), and its accompanying flight of articles and polemics, he investigated the diseased relationship between suicide and genocide that is disclosed by the preparation of thermonuclear extinction. In Time's Arrow (1991) he made a very assured attempt to find a new literary mode for the subject of genocide tout court, and for the Nazi-generated race murder in particular. Koba the Dread aims to complete this triptych by interrogating the subject of Stalinism and the Great Terror.
Amis's two previous undertakings of this kind were reviewed ungenerously in some quarters, either because they seemed presumptuous in taking a familiar subject and presenting it as if for the first time, or because they relied a little too much on a senior source (Jonathan Schell in the first case, and Primo Levi in the second). To this I would respond rather as Winston Smith does when he has finished reading the occult "inner-party" book in Nineteen Eighty-Four: "The best books ... are those that tell you what you know already." Amis understands that cliché and banality constitute a menace to even the most apparently self-evident truths. "Holocaust" can become a tired synecdoche for war crimes in general. Before one knows it, one is employing terms like "nuclear exchange" and even "nuclear umbrella," and committing the mental and moral offense of euphemism. One must always seek for new means of keeping familiar subjects fresh, and raw.
Stalinism was, among other things, a triumph of the torturing of language. And, unlike Nazism or fascism or nuclear warfare, it secured at least the respect, and sometimes the admiration, of liberal intellectuals. Thus Amis's achievement in these pages is to make us wince again at things that we already "knew" while barely wasting a word or missing the implications of a phrase. Here is a short section titled "Rhythms of Thought":
Stalin's two most memorable utterances are "Death solves all problems. No man, no problem" and (he was advising his interrogators on how best to elicit a particular confession) "Beat, beat and beat again."
Both come in slightly different versions. "There is a man, there is a problem. No man, no problem." This is less epigrammatic, and more catechistic—more typical of Stalin's seminarian style (one thinks of his oration at Lenin's funeral and its liturgical back-and-forth).
The variant on number two is: "Beat, beat, and, once again, beat." Another clear improvement, if we want a sense of Stalin's rhythms of thought.
To that second paragraph Amis appends a footnote, saying:
If Stalin had been a modern American he would not have used the word "problem" but the less defeatist and judgmental "issue". Actually, when you consider what Stalin tended to do to his enemies' descendants, the substitution works well enough.
That is excellent: dry without being too detached. Next I would instance Amis's citations from the various cruelties and torments documented by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
This reader has endured none of them; and I will proceed with caution and unease. It feels necessary because torture, among its other applications, was part of Stalin's war against the truth. He tortured, not to force you to reveal a fact, but to force you to collude in a fiction.
Here is his close reading of the last paragraph of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky's closing stave reads,
The language of the civilised nations has clearly marked off two epochs in the development of Russia. Where the aristocratic culture introduced into the world parlance such barbarisms as tsar, pogrom, knout, October has internationalised such words as Bolshevik, soviet, and piatiletka. This alone justifies the proletarian revolution, if you imagine that it needs justification.
Amis's first comment on this ensues directly. He adds to Trotsky's bombast the words "Which leaves you wondering if piatiletka is Russian for 'summary execution,' perhaps, or 'slave camp.'" There follows a footnote. (Like Gibbon, Amis seems to like to reserve the best for the footnotes.)
I searched without success for piatiletka in five end-of-monograph glossaries. Its clinching "internationalisation," then, didn't last (although Hitler, and later Mao, took it up). Piatiletka means "five-year plan."
There is a very slight waste of words here, because the mordancy of Amis's second observation makes the first one seem merely taunting and sarcastic. But lapses of this kind are infrequent. When Amis summarizes a crux, it stays summarized. One doesn't have to have suffered torture and solitary confinement to get the point that is being made here:
The confession was in any case merely part of a more or less inevitable process. When it was their turn to be purged, former interrogators (and all other Chekists) immediately called with a flourish for the pen and the dotted line.
One also wouldn't absolutely have to know which regime was under discussion: the potency of that aperçu derives from its disclosing of our animal nature. Indeed, and as in his other work on murder and tyranny, Amis has a better than approximate idea of what we as a species might get up to if given a chance. "Arma virumque cano, and Hitler-Stalin tells us this, among other things: given total power over another, the human being will find that his thoughts turn to torture."
This is an insight of extreme, frigid bleakness, amounting almost to despair, but it also involves a minor waste of words. We knew this, after all, before we knew of Hitler or Stalin. Again to cite Orwell, there is a tendency for all stories of cruelty and atrocity to resemble one another. For this reason some overfamiliar or recycled accounts provoke boredom or disbelief, and can be made to seem propagandistic. (The classic example is the way the British fabrication of German outrages during World War I had the paradoxical effect of turning skeptics into cynics when they heard the initially incredible news of Nazi innovations in that terrible sphere.) Orwell was on guard against this blunting tendency. He thought it probable that given moral breakdown, the same hellish desires would replicate and repeat themselves. He also believed the worst about Stalin's system, and much earlier than most "enlightened" people, precisely because he found its public language so crude and brutal.