To Kill All Day

Frank Kermode

  • Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million by Martin Amis
    Cape, 306 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 224 06303 0

This book is primarily the product of some fiercely hard reading, a reaction to the shock of finding something out from books. It has some directly autobiographical elements – a letter to the author’s father, reminiscences of a dead sister, chats with Christopher Hitchens, tales of Oxford and the old New Statesman office, and so on. But fierce reading is what this book is about, and these other passages seem intrusive. It would have been enough to observe a good writer wrestling with material that clearly tested his nerve.

What he provides is an account of his deepening amazement as he learns more than he formerly knew (always feeling he ought to have known more) about a series of historical events horrible almost beyond understanding. The interest of the reader must be in the writing, in observing what this writer can do in order to speak what seems to him, and to most of his readers, unspeakable. Such work calls for extensive rhetorical resources. One traditional way of doing this kind of thing was to use irony, or what the rhetoricians called apophasis, a device of negation whereby, to cite an illustrative passage in the OED, ‘we deny that we say or doe that which we especially say or doe.’ Another is aposiopesis, an artifice by which, as the dictionary explains, ‘the speaker comes to a sudden halt, as if unwilling or unable to proceed, though something not expressed must be understood.’ The word is ordinarily used of sentences that stop before they end, and grammarians, from Ben Jonson to Martin Amis, normally disapprove of such sentences; but aposiopesis may be allowed as a structural feature, as when Yeats ends his ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ by claiming that he cannot continue his roll call of Gregory’s friends because ‘a thought/Of that late death took all my heart for speech.’

We may grant Yeats command of that trick and also say that to confront horror with irony calls for the powers of a Swift. Neither of these devices was available to Amis, unless one were to argue that there is, within his book, ‘something not expressed that must be understood’: if so, it is, roughly, a forlorn apprehension of all humanity as the virtually unresisting prey of the powerful, mad or sane – of men who enjoy, day in and day out, the infliction, on an enormous scale, of pain, misery and death.

In 1757 Dr Johnson wrote his imperishable review of Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Looking afresh at this masterpiece, I see that Jenyns would have made a deft Leninist apologist. As far as the ‘universal system’ goes, Jenyns says, ‘there is no more pain in it than what is necessary to the production of happiness.’ Johnson replies, with studied moderation, that possibly ‘the degree of evil might have been less without any impediment to the good,’ an opinion that would very likely have got him sent to the Gulag, while Jenyns was being showered with honours.

As the review goes on Johnson’s strictures grow more severe and indignant. Jenyns imagines that there may be, in the scale of being, creatures higher than we, who might be thought to deceive and torment us for their pleasure, just as we keep animals for our diversion. Johnson develops this great idea: perhaps, he suggests, some of these beings

delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher [scientist] in the effects of the air pump [used on animals in laboratory experiments] . . . Many a merry bout have these frolic beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive, and tumble again, and all this he knows not why . . . Perhaps now and then a merry being may place himself in such a situation as to enjoy, at once, all the varieties of an epidemic disease, or amuse his leisure with the tossings and contortions of every possible pain exhibited together.

Members of the Politburo were rarely to be described as ‘merry’ or ‘frolic’, but in most respects Jenyns’s superior creatures seem perfect candidates for the nomenklatura.

Johnson’s way was to begin equably and then to reveal, without directly naming it, his indignation and disgust. Amis’s job, with the work of his friend Robert Conquest and the books of Solzhenitsyn before him, was to write about matters odious beyond description, yet requiring to be talked about. It would be difficult or impossible to imitate through a whole book the method of Johnson, and it would not be enough merely to scream with rage and disgust.

Some of the work could be done simply by contemplating numbers. Twenty million dead is already impressive, and the true total, as Amis remarks, could be many more. Wholesale shootings were not fully effective, however assiduous the workers, though one and a half million citizens were shot or sent to the Gulag in the Great Terror of 1937-38. Khrushchev was dispatched to the Ukraine with orders to eliminate thirty thousand. (Stalin would have liked to kill the entire population of that province; perhaps, as Amis suggests, he would have liked to eliminate everybody, but they were inconveniently too many.) The Gulag took care of vast numbers, but famine was the most efficient executioner. That famine was used deliberately to this end seems clear enough: food was exported from the Ukraine as the population starved. Another weapon was maladministration: the Five-Year Plan was a calamitous failure.

Three million children died in the ‘Terror-Famine’ of 1933. Amis counts the dead intently, a virtuous miser in a rage. Lenin did well, continuing the tsarist tradition of brutality as a political weapon and maintaining a police state, but Stalin, abandoning universal revolution and concentrating on home affairs, did better, slaughtering peasants and priests and poets as well as politicians and generals, madly crippling his defences as the German Army closed in. Killing, irrational, gratuitous, was his life. By 1939 he had reduced the population by nine or ten million, and the Great Patriotic War was yet to come.

It is hard not to join in the counting. Some thirty million Chinese died by famine or in the Cultural Revolution, and in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge left two million dead. Stalin could even be held responsible for the twenty million who died in the Great Patriotic War and the six million of the Holocaust. If he had not prevented the German Communists from voting with the Social Democrats things might have turned out differently in 1933. Given the choice, Stalin would favour the Nazis, just as he saw that the criminal element in the camps were the first to benefit from disciplinary relaxations. His absolute refusal to believe in the reality of the German invasion almost brought his depleted armies to early defeat. The victory of 1945 was almost the sole exception in a record of failure, and Amis remarks that it owed little to Stalin. But terror enabled him to arrange that failures were hailed as successes.

In contrast to the Nazis, with their gruesomely systematic habits, Stalin killed and ruined at random, and he did so for very much longer. He shared one characteristic with the current US President: he was a patient man. If reports of his deeds were sometimes found incredible, the reason, as Robert Conquest remarks, was simply that they were. But they were true. When they are studied, as they are once more in this book, incredulity gives way to rage. Amis considers the camps, the slave ships, the failures which somehow failed to dent the reputation of the person responsible for them, the activities of toadies and informers; the humiliations, the sheer gratuity of the torments imposed (‘recreational torture’), the cold excesses of terror. Having to find language for a rage that is virtually beyond expression, Amis concludes that Stalin was correct in thinking that ‘human beings, given certain conditions, can kill all day,’ and that anybody, ‘given total power over another human being, will find that his thoughts turn to torture’. His response to Stalin is a mixture of contempt and fear, the fear arising from his having been taught that that last proposition appears to be true, that Stalin was in some respects not unique but even commonplace. Thousands do torture as a day job, and famine is still hard at work. This is the ‘terrible news of what it is to be human’.

Amis wants to know not so much how he himself happened to have missed so much of this ‘terrible’ news, but how so many others managed, as it were, to sleep through it, to maintain a sympathy for the Soviet Union not only in the days of the purges and show trials but right on, until the collapse of 1991. Here I think he exaggerates, probably by judging the matter from the responses of his Oxford contemporaries, and from his father’s curiously lengthy membership of the Party. The condition of Britain in the 1930s was such that the hope or promise of a socialist alternative was very seductive, but warning voices were clearly audible. Amis himself quotes from Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, published in English in 1940; thereafter his readers could have been in little doubt about the Moscow Trials. The God that Failed appeared in 1950. Moreover, a great many citizens steadfastly hated and feared Communism and the ‘Russian experiment’. During the war I often heard fellow-officers complain that we were fighting the wrong enemy – they would have supported an alliance with Germany against the Bolsheviks. When the Germans invaded Russia it was quite understood why they should want to do so, and few doubted that they would win after a brief campaign (though in some ways that was a pretty alarming idea). When a couple of Russian officers took passage with us the social atmosphere was suspiciously chilly, a premonitory breath of the Cold War. What was lacking among my colleagues was the slightest sympathy with the Soviet cause, the slightest interest in the great achievements announced by Russian propaganda. And the successes of the Soviet armies may have given some relief but afforded no pleasure at all.

So not everybody in the West was asleep or indifferent during the reign of Stalin. We are told that Robert Conquest was called a Fascist for publishing his books of ‘terrible news’; I think it would be truer to say that many or most (wrongly, of course) thought his figures exaggerated, not that they were wholly fictitious. It is hard to believe the incredible. Doubtless there remained, to the comfort of some workers and some intellectuals, a considerable residue of primitive utopian aspiration, a longing for rescue from what seemed the hopelessness of capitalism. There were those, like Edward Upward, who believed (and, I think, believe) that Communism was never even tried, that the whole of Soviet history is a monstrous deviation, its extent marked by the almost unimaginable cruelty of Koba.

Amis has tried to render that cruelty imaginatively. He believes, as his title suggests, that there is room in the account for laughter, the laughter that arises from exploding Soviet television sets, or even at certain moments in the lives of hopeless prisoners, for instance when they are officially urged to feel sympathy for the hardships suffered by comrades who were resisting the bourgeois enemy in Greece. One story is of an audience clapping after one of Stalin’s performances: nobody dared to stop first, the applause went on and on, until people fainted with exhaustion. That is a little funny, but not very. But Amis thinks it an important distinction that one could laugh at Soviet Communism but not at Nazism. It is a point he doesn’t make effectively. Laughter is in this case important only because it is desperate.

When he spends a lot of time demonstrating Nabokov’s debating triumph over his friend Edmund Wilson he is once more out of focus. He imitates Nabokov’s performance in gently chiding his friend Hitchens for cherishing a remnant of Trotskyism because he does not understand that Trotsky also means Terror. We all want to know as much as possible about Mr Hitchens’s political consciousness, but these passages do not obviously belong here. Like laughter, they are beside the present point.

It is in the strength of his revulsion from terror, in the first-hand record of his second-hand acquaintance with it, that Amis shows his power. To the very end he continues to convey his astonished recognition that terror is incontrovertible evidence of human wickedness, of a wickedness capable of such refinement that Stalin was able to send his victims to their deaths expressing their adoration of him. At the news of his death large numbers of people were crushed to death in the streets. Loving him went with being crushed by him, even posthumously.

On his visit to China W.H. Auden took along Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic, in which, as John Fuller informs us in his Commentary (1998), he was depressed to read the catalogue of tortures and massacres attributed to William the Silent. The official report of William’s death said that he was the guiding star of the nation, and that ‘when he died the little children cried in the streets.’ In January 1939 Auden published this poem, ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, in the New Statesman:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst
with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Who can he have had in mind? A long list, of course, but Stalin must head it. Amis insists that Stalin sought a ‘negative perfection’, which is ‘perfection of a kind’, the kind achieved when the children die rather than cry. Altogether he seems to have killed more than four million of them. ‘It’s exactly the same nowadays,’ Auden moralised after reading about William’s performance as the guiding star of his nation: ‘Really, civilisation hasn’t advanced an inch.’ The terrible news about what it is to be human is very old news, but it is entirely to Amis’s credit that he has made this effort to experience it as new.