Koba the Dread

When Tina Brown signed her ex-boyfriend Martin Amis to the nascent

Talk Miramax Books, she certainly knew there was a memoir

in the pipeline; a collection

of reviews and essays was part of the deal as well. But after that,

surely, this great British novelist would surely provide — well,

a novel. Instead, we get Koba

the Dread, a history book-cum-memoir which less than two months

after its publication has already sunk to 1,440 on amazon.com’s sales

ranking. It might have made the front page of the Sunday New York Times

book review section, but the American public clearly has little time

for a précis of Stalin’s purges, interspersed with personal anecdotes

and peculiar sideswipes at Christopher Hitchens.

Bizarrely, the genre this book most closely approximates is neither

textbook nor memoir, but weblog. It was written, as far as I can make

out, while Amis was on holiday in Uruguay with "several yards of

books about the Soviet experiment". Sometimes Amis puts all those

books to one side and rattles off stories of himself at his father’s

knee in the company of Philip Larkin; most of the time he’ll pull one

of the books off the shelf and use it to bludgeon the figure of Iosif

Stalin. In keeping with the book’s solipsistic tone, thoughts of Stalin

bring up musings on Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens and even Martin’s

own daughter, and so we hear about them as well.

None of it, I have to say, makes a great deal of sense. Amis jumps

around a lot, both chronologically and stylistically, and it can be

very hard to keep up. One minute he’ll be waxing grandly on the "politicization

of sleep"; the next he’ll quote a gulag survivor’s memoir just

because a particular passage speaks powerfully to him; and the next

his conversational tone will return, and we’ll get the feeling that

we’re eavesdropping on one side of an argument between Amis and Hitchens

in which a detailed knowledge of all several yards of books is assumed.

Amis is a much better novelist than he is polemicist, however, and

he has picked as an adversary one of the greatest polemicists in the

business. Hitchens’ demolition

of Amis in the Guardian is much more fun to read than the ponderous

and slightly incoherent accuasations against which he is defending himself;

his book

review in the Atlantic starts with a section of over-generous praise

before morphing effortlessly into a well-deserved skewering session.

The real weakness of the book, however, is its historical unreliability.

Because Amis did no originial research, his prose is littered with paragraphs

like this one:

Stalin’s aims were clear: crash Collectivization would, through

all-out grain exports, finance wildfire industrialization, resulting

in breakneck militarization to secure state and empire "in a hostile

world." According to Robert Tucker, Stalin was beginning to picture

himself as a kind of Marxist Tsar; he hoped to improve and replace Leninism

(with Stalinism), and also to buttress the state "from above,"

as had Peter the Great. What remains less clear is whether his strategy

was thought through, or simply and intoxicatedly ad hoc. The Five Year

Plan, after all, was not a plan but a wish list. It was certainly Stalin’s

intention, or his need, to regalvanize Bolshevism, to commit it, once

again, to "heroic" struggle. And yet, unlike Hitler, who announced

his goals in 1933 and, with a peculiarly repulsive sense of entitlement,

set about achieving them, Stalin is to be seen at this time as a figure

constantly fantasticated not by success but by failure.

Wow. There’s a lot of omniscience here: "Stalin’s aims were clear…

It was certainly Stalin’s intention… Stalin is to be seen at this

time as". But there’s also that peculiar "According to Robert

Tucker" in the middle: is Amis hedging, or simply citing?

And he puts quotation marks around "in a hostile world", without

any indication of who or what he might be quoting. Then, that bizarre

final sentence: "And yet, unlike Hitler…" — why him,

all of a sudden? And what on earth does "fantasticated" mean,


The most withering criticism of Koba the Dread has come not from Hitchens,

or from Michiko Kakutani in

the New York Times ("the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class

littérateur"). It has come, rather, from Anne Applebaum

in Slate."Contrary to the reviews," she writes,

"Koba the Dread is not, in fact, a competent account of Stalin’s

reign but rather a muddled misrendering of both Soviet and Western intellectual


Amis has failed, in other words, even at the relatively modest task

he set himself. If we can’t trust his take on Soviet history, the very

foundations on which the book is built crumble, and we are left with

nothing at all.

Amis says

that he’s working on a new novel, one which harkens back to the comedy

of Money.

If I worked at Talk Miramax, I’d be very happy about that: Mart’s attempts

at genre-hopping only seem to land him in trouble. Bring on the old!

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3 Responses to Koba the Dread

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hmm. Can’t be bothered to look up “fantasticate;” takes another critic’s word for the scholarly inadequacy of the work being reviewed (doing so immediately after castigating the reviewed author for not “doing research”)…

    This is very very sloppy journalism. Shame on you.

  2. Andrea Quijano says:

    Excellent review Mr. Salmon! Amis’ recount of Stalin’s Soviet Union is jumbled and chronologically inconsistent. In short, it is nothing more than a historical heterogeneous mess. In Koba, Amis’ style of writing falls far from delineating the artist’s unique talent of writing, which from his previous works has made him one of my favorite authors. He should simply keep to story telling and leave the paraphrasing to high schoolers cramming to finish a last minute term paper.

  3. I think that Koba is both a ‘good’ book and an important book.

    I have little interest in the criticisms of Amis’s style, or his segue’s between personal memory and historic record. That is entirely consistant with his previous works.

    The book introduced me to several important (and, perhaps, stylisticaly more consistent) works and authors.

    In addition it takes sucessfully communicates the enormous scope and scale of the disasters of the Soviet experience in a way that most of the more scholoarly tomes do not.

    Given that these events scarcely register in the public historic memory, I believe that Amis has a real contribution to the ‘strugle of memory against forgetting’ that Kundera talks about.

    If the tone is slightly ‘hysterical’, as one critic puts it, then perhaps we should be grateful that we have, in Amis, an author who is not concerned to conceal his incomprehension and bewilderment at the Western Intelligensia’s duplicity with the ‘Big Lie’ of the communist’s propaganda.

    God forbid that he should have written a dispassionate, disinterested and clinical book. His ‘tone’, in my opinion, permits the reader to react to the appaling facts he presents in a visceral rather than cerebral way.

    I would recommend his book as THE starting point for anyone who wishes to learn about the Soviet Union and the crimes of Stalin and Communism.

    Get started with Amis – he’ll take you to Conquest; Ginzberg; Dolot and Burdach.

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