Red Souls

Neal Ascherson

  • Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 240 pp, £5.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 09 142050 4

We have come out of a long tunnel, and the view has changed. War is now quite clearly visible, not all that far off. That is not inevitably where we are going, the terminus. But most of us never expected to get so close, so suddenly. The Russians are in Afghanistan, aggrieved and astonished at the world’s reaction. Nato is buying itself a new armoury it does not need, deliberately presenting what is really a crisis of confidence within the Alliance as a response to a Soviet threat. The Americans fiddle with their weapons, dropping some of them. The hot lines have gone cold; the Gulf yawns. And something has happened within ourselves too. People are beginning to think that a nuclear war is probable, and that it won’t be quite so bad as those old CND people used to say. There are things one can do. There are places where most people will survive. There is no point in refusing to think about it, or treating it as one big bang which will bring total extinction. Sure, it would be terrible but it might not be a terminus after all …

A sort of mental preparation is taking place. And in this preparation, compounded of apathy, half-baked comparisons with 1939 or 1914, and an irrepressible human optimism which refuses to regard any calamity as hopeless, the arguments about whether it is better to be Red or Dead no longer find a place. These no longer look like alternatives. The consequences of a war in which Britain is on the losing side would, it is supposed, no longer be an uninhabited island, but something much more traditional: an enemy occupation, in which their politics would be forced upon a subject population. Such a prospect is much more fun for the imagination. The theme of Britain under Nazi occupation has already produced a shelf of fiction, much the best being Len Deighton’s SS-GB. Now the idea can be extended, made more topical. This new satire by Kingsley Amis – a ‘melodrama’, as he calls it – treats of England under the Russian boot, something worth paying a high price in blood to avoid (and it’s significant that his lost war was apparently a conventional one, or at least a conflict which did not level cities and leave radioactive mutants behind). In this sense, Russian Hide and Seek is a well-timed stroke of psychological warfare.

It is the 21st century. England has been a Russian protectorate for some fifty years: neither a Grand Duchy in the old Czarist style, nor an autonomous republic, but a battered, miserable, subjugated, de-cultured colony. Among older people, bitter memories survive of what life was like when England was a free country (Wales and Scotland have apparently become detached). But it is almost impossible to check those fading memories against the truth, or to transmit them to younger English generations, because the books have all been destroyed, the national history and literature abolished, the churches banned and closed. One in three is literate, in a rough-and-ready way. Over the dirty, potholed streets of English villages, horses pull carts past crumbling houses patched up with any odd material the natives can ‘organise’. Occasionally a Russian military car passes, perhaps taking a party of young ensigns to a debauch, perhaps bearing some provincial governor to his requisitioned country mansion.

But this is a tale about the Russian occupiers rather than the English. They are well rooted. Soldiers and administrators, enjoying what their uncouth tastes consider to be elegance and luxury, they live in England with their families. Many were even born here. Intermarriage with the natives is still forbidden, although that may soon change, but most speak a few words of English. Indeed, this distant province with its forgotten glories is beginning to exercise a fascination on its masters.

Imagine an ape-man, a Quasimodo. He has picked up a delicate china figurine which has disintegrated in his paws. Now, crooning with concern, his prognathous brow deeply creased, he crouches over the fragments and tries to coax them together again. This is how Amis presents his Russians, or at least the better ones among them. Some of them are plotting. On the surface, they are trying to run a ‘New Cultural Policy for England’ (NCPE), to restore some of the cultural damage inflicted by the old ‘denationing’ programme. Russian savants collect folk-song, and strum ‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road’ during distinguished soirées. For the NCPE Festival, texts of Shakespeare have been unearthed, and puzzled native audiences are herded into a restored theatre to hear a Russian-produced drama called Romeo and Juliet. But at a clandestine level, a group of officers and civil servants are plotting a coup against the administration which will set up something like an autonomous English government.

Marxism and Communism have long since faded away, as the guiding principles of Russian life. Instead, they have reverted to the 19th century, to the society described by Gogol or Turgenev. All is boorish posturing. Young officers loaf through dreams of becoming heroes of their own times. Fine feelings are aped, then put aside when the vodka comes round. Grand evenings begin with tinkling ‘English’ Lieder on out-of-tune pianos, and end with indiscriminate vomiting and fucking on the lawns of country houses. The plotters display sympathy for the miseries of the English population around them, even – a fine touch – decorate their Russian speech with English phrases as their ancestors once flirted with French. ‘Piss off!’ says an innocent, grey-eyed girl. ‘Well I’m buggered,’ exclaims the district commissioner. But this is affectation. The Russians have no real feelings, only animal impulses and the desire to create a sensation. ‘The essence of the Russian character,’ one character confesses, ‘has always been theatricality.’

This Russian soul, only truly at home in scenes of servitude, ennui and futility, is distilled by Amis in the form of Alexander Petrovsky, the hero. Well, not so much a hero, more of a narcissistic popinjay. To cut a dash, he would certainly sell his granny or Babushka; in the novel, he is prepared to assassinate his own father. We get the message about Russians in the opening passage, deliberately done in the manner of ‘an observer in the town of G. in the government of B. one fine morning of spring in 186 ... might have espied a young man in English tweeds and worn Jewish boots as he ...’ Alexander is discovered galloping his cavalry horse moodily at a flock of sheep. He harries and scatters them, laughing, but when a lamb bleats for its mother he is seized by remorse: ‘he halted and sat motionless, with face lowered, biting his lips and swallowing every few seconds.’

The pastiche develops. In the decayed country house he inhabits with his parents (and of course a noble sister, worrying about her brother’s amours and sighing for his best friend), he dreams of the splendour of its vanished English owners. Their life was truly aristocratic. For them, it must have been ‘gherkin sandwiches’ and whisky out of crystal goblets, not his father’s clumsy buffets of smoked goose, red cabbage, watercress and thick slices of bread. He is restless in the officers’ mess, where his friends relieve the boredom by games of shooting at each other in the dark, or by grand debauches with the local English girls. He is excited when the conspirators unveil their plan and invite him to join. They are young officers who, in a contemptuous parody of the Decembrists, want to risk their lives for ideas of liberty which – being Russians – they can never really understand.

Alexander is also what Mr Amis once called a ‘king of shaft’. He is conducting an affair with the wife of an official in Security, the successor to the KGB. More accurately, she is conducting it, and showing much inventive relish about the job too. With Mrs Korotchenko, we are right away from parody Russians and suddenly back with an Amis character nearly as recurrent as L.S. Caton: that older woman who wants it now and done the way she fancies – or else. Mrs Korotchenko likes it up against the kitchen wall, on the lawn at parties, in boots, in company with her small daughter or swinging from a rope (all chandeliers, it seems, were broken years ago). Even the prose perks up and gets funnier. This comes as a relief after the Turgenev stuff, long-winded and descriptive, which Amis uses as accompaniment to his other characters.

With Alexander trying to extract a list of Security agents from Mrs Korotchenko, the New Cultural Policy is stumbling forward. The selected English audiences are provided with specially-made clothes for theatre-going and church attendance. They enjoy Look back in anger, but are bewildered by Romeo and Juliet, which they conclude is some kind of trick got up by the ‘Shits’ (as they call their masters) to humiliate them. Religion is to be restored too, and Alexander coerces an ancient parson into holding a Church of England service. Russian savants, and their English advisers, have fitted up a church with what an old photograph suggests were its trappings, and have trained a choir. But the congregation, invited to re-enter their heritage by Russian courtesy, find the hymns and liturgy incomprehensible, pointless, and slip away.

In the end, the conspiracy drops apart: it has been no more than a Security provocation. Alexander trains the pistol on his father, hesitates, and is shot by a soldier. There follows another nest-of-gentlefolk family tableau around his body, done in reproduction hand-tooled Tolstoy, ending with the words: ‘At last it began to rain.’

The satire concludes with arrests, revelations of how clever Security had been, omens of a hopeless future. It is a clever book, tightly plotted. But there’s a lack of vigour and conviction, as if Amis found it hard going. His other recent political fantasy, modern England in a world where the Reformation had never taken place, was infinitely livelier. This time his projections from history are less persuasive. Would the English really be so easy to lobotomise? The Poles, for example, went through a century of rigorous ‘denationing’ at the hands of Russians and Prussians and emerged more aware of their history and culture than ever.

And his Russians! This is the melancholy distinction of the book: it is the first satire I have read in English which is racially, not just politically, anti-Russian. Amis is saying that your Ivan is only a clever imitation of a human being. His instincts are bestial: his finer feelings are always a pose. Western values of freedom and justice will always come to bits in his paws; his natural condition is that of the reign of Nicholas I. I think it was Enoch Powell who unexpectedly attacked Solzhenitsyn a few years ago, observing that no Englishman should tolerate being lectured about liberty by a Russian, and that outburst might even have been the germ of Russian Hide and Seek, which, funny as it is, descends to the level of Great War jingo fiction about the eternal Hun befouling England’s green and pleasant land.

Conrad’s Under Western Eyes is the most brilliant of foreign attempts to reproduce Russian attitudes – and the cruellest. But he allowed for heroes, in a land where the bad were the worst but the little company of the good were so good that for their sake all might be redeemed. In Amis’s Russia, by contrast, there is no room for a Herzen or a Belinski, a Sakharov or a Grigorenko. The time has come, once again, to learn to hate another people, and that cannot be achieved until the masses are persuaded that the enemy are less than full members of the human race.