The Gulag Argumento

Martin Amis swings at Stalin and hits his own best friend instead.

Judging by the reviews, Martin Amis’ new book, Koba the Dread, will produce an unusually wide range of reactions—but that is hardly surprising. Although Amis is best known as a novelist, Koba the Dread is a truly unique, not to say peculiar, work of nonfiction: a potted history of Stalin’s reign (“Koba” was Stalin’s nickname), plus a few random, mostly trivial vignettes from Amis’ own life, plus some less trivial but out-of-context ruminations on the deaths of Amis’ father and sister. Michiko Kakatuni in the New York Times called Koba the Dread “the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle class litterateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin’s victims did.” By contrast, Paul Berman, in the Sunday New York Times, thought it a “very curiously tinted book, idiosyncratic in the extreme,” which nevertheless “carries a punch, artfully delivered.”

Still, most reviewers seem to agree that whatever the book’s faults—and however odd its digressions into subjects like the Bolsheviks’ “politicization of sleep”—Amis has at least done us all a favor by bringing attention to a neglected subject. Kakutani writes that the book “does a credible job of conveying just how Stalin went about ‘breaking the truth.’ ” Andrew Stuttaford, in the National Review, compliments Amis on the grounds that he offers readers a “brief, competent introduction to the Stalin years.” And now Christopher Hitchens, writing in this month’s issue of the Atlantic, applauds Amis because he “makes us wince again at things we already ‘knew.’ “

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