Koba the Dread

Martin Amis

Read September 2003

One of the Australian comedies of 1996 was a movied called Children of the Revolution. The tagline asked: What do you do when your father is no ordinary Joe? And just in case you missed the point, the cover image portrayed a baby with a red star-emblazoned fur hat, sporting a certain moustache—all on a drenched red background. I watched it. It was unevenly funny. I laughed sometimes, but always with some unease.

Martin Amis brings a cudgel to the head of all who dare laugh. He grabs us with his remarkable title, then snaps our chuckle instantly with his equally powerful subtitle: Laughter and the Twenty Million. His central question is simply put: Why is the German Holocaust a taboo for all but the most serious discussion, while we continue to joke about the USSR? How, in his terminology, did the "little moustache" become the personification of evil, while we continue to laugh at, almost along with, the "big moustache"? (And why do we think Stalin laughed much, anyway?)

Amis's book is the literary explosion we might expect of a gifted writer penning an impassioned screed. He is by turns brutal and devastating; he is even, dare we say it, funny. But the discipline of the front cover carries through: the humor is always followed by a verbal slap, as if taunting us to laugh the next time his pen weaves its magic.

This is, ultimately, a book about personalities, only a few of whom come across as people. The book begins with the question so many of us ponder, whether of old Nazis or old Bolsheviks: not What were they thinking? (easy), but rather, What do they think of what they thought? Martin immediately makes this personal, taking on his illustrious father. Perhaps conveniently, the elder Amis stands on firm ground, having become a red baiter in his later years.

While Kingsley Amis remains a ghostly presence throughout the book, Robert Conquest and Alexander Solzhenitsyn inhabit and then populate it. (Christopher Hitchens has a prominent guest role.) Indeed, the easiest criticism to level against Amis fils is that, by relying so exclusively on sworn enemies of the state, his own account inevitably lurches rightward. Yet Amis is too smart to not recognize this. It is as if he took this path anyway, daring us to disagree. And indeed, I would contend that he succeeds so well in numbing his reader that one dare not ask these questions: the twenty million have silenced us.

There are two tantalizing images in the book that almost undermine Amis's vendetta against the sentimental reds. One is a reproduction of a cartoon from 1938, showing the Soviets to be in the thrall of the Nazis, and the other is a poster from 1931 advertising a discussion about Soviet prison camps. Why did Amis include this poster and yet not discuss it? And yet, even as we ponder this question, Amis again pushes us back into submission with the photograph on the next page of anthropophagi.

In the end, though, Amis has no deep answers. Why is the little moustache reviled so much more? Because the big moustache represented a proletarian, Utopian vision? Maybe that's why it's easy to ignore, to pretend, to forget. Amis recognizes that, and admits to it. Or is it because the Nazis were so successfully brutal, while the Soviets were... bunglers? And maybe that's the whole point: this book is one long refutation of that second possibility (starting, indeed, with Lenin and Trotsky, who often get a free pass thanks to Stalin).

This is, ultimately, a book without moorings. As a personal diatribe, one might wonder, who cares? As analysis, it is hopelessly inadequate, making no bones of its reliance on authorities such as Conquest. And it sometimes slips into being too personal a memoir. And yet it carves an existence in the space between essay, history and reminiscence. It numbs you in its middle stretches, yet it is oddly compelling. Read it, and remember the twenty million.