Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3


Koba the Dread

Martin Amis
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million
Jonathan Cape, London, 2002, pp. 306

THERE are two parts to this book, which are worth distinguishing. The first, which has excited the greatest media interest, is also the most straightforward. Martin Amis uses this book as an opportunity to settle his accounts with any sort of left-wing history of 1917. Amis raids the published books of Dmitri Volkogonov, Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes to argue that the Bolsheviks were all murderers, their party was every bit as bad as Hitler’s, and that anyone who ever displayed the slightest sympathy for Bolshevism was in fact a self-deceiving fan of dictatorship. This study is only different from previous accounts in that it is more didactic, more laboured, and less well-informed. Such writers as Figes, for all their many faults, do at least make a pretence of familiarity with the counter-arguments. In Koba, by contrast, there are no references, just assertion, special pleading and bile.

Martin Amis boasts instead of never having read Isaac Deutscher or Leon Trotsky. ‘Trotsky’s History is worthless as history, as historiography, as writing.’ Why? Because ‘truth, like all other human values is indefinitely postponable’. In effect, Amis states that Trotsky could not have written a fundamentally true book, because of the dishonest part he played in Russian life. What strikes me most is the infuriating, obvious hypocrisy – which must have been evident to Amis himself – a harsh test of truth – and does our author live up to it? Historians, at least, are charged with guilt when we get our facts wrong. There is no danger, however, of Amis ever feeling the same regret. Hitler had a five-year plan (p. 36). No Mart, four. All Russia’s anarchists, we learn, were eliminated by Lenin in 1918 (p. 26). Even Makhno? ‘Lenin’s famine’ of 1921–22 killed five million people. A partial truth here. The numbers are plausible, but not the fault. Not even Richard Pipes, armed with all his footnotes culled from Black Hundred newspapers, claims that. As for the absent sources, we might as well add Lenin to the list, judging by the way Amis ‘quotes’ The State and Revolution as saying that socialism depended on ‘unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person’. Read, Mart, please.

Koba did at least force Amis’ old friend Christopher Hitchens into a brief and welcome spasm of protest. ‘Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann’, writes Amis. ‘Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky.’ To which Hitchens replied by reminding Amis of the rôle played by Trotsky’s Bulletin of the Opposition in documenting the murders. Hitchens also wrote of Serge and James, and of all the dissidents who fought to spread the news of the Terror. ‘The “Nobody” at the beginning of Amis’ sentences above is an insult’, Hitchens wrote, ‘pure and simple.’

Mention of Hitchens brings me to the second (and perhaps more interesting) theme of this book. The book was written as the second of Amis’ interventions into the field of autobiography. His previous book, Experience, modestly pointed out that the greatest of all British authors had all made this leap, and here Amis was good enough to name himself, in case any reader missed the point. Amis’ literary brilliance was manifested in such treats as a 2000-word section justifying the expense of his most recent visit to the dentist – too many Madeleines, perhaps? The same flaw is manifested in this book, not least in the section where Amis explains how he has been able to understand the pain of the gulag, because one night he caught his daughter crying and renamed her Butyrki, after the Moscow Prison (p. 260). Such is not empathy, but stupidity. The pain of Terror was more than a few sleepless nights. The bathos of this passage is pure Amis, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote combined. Unlike most novelists, he has a true sense of historical perspective, a feeling for issues that matter. Then he takes this gift, and wastes it, in the most extraordinary, arrogant manner. Such is the man.

Why should Amis bother to write a second-rate history of the Terror? Koba the Dread only makes sense if it is seen in the context of Experience, for both together represent a long hymn of praise to the virtue and sagacity of Amis’ father Kingsley. Amis senior left to posterity two legacies, one amusing novel, variously self-plagiarised after, and the personal example of a saloon-bar existence, spent in the delightful company of his equally sexist, racist and homophobic friend, Philip Larkin. Kingsley Amis would have been long forgotten, were it not for his son.

In Koba, Kingsley Amis is the invisible, central character. He appears at the beginning and the end. In the first pages, Martin quotes from his father’s student correspondence, when Kingsley was briefly a Communist. The last pages are a Letter to My Father’s Ghost, ending with the words, ‘Your middle child hails you and embraces you.’ It is depressing to see an author who once showed great potential succumb to his father’s mistakes.

Dave Renton

Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011