The accomplished English novelist follows his first memoir (Experience, 2000) with a post-millennial backward glance at the evil 20th century and its “chief lacuna.”
A child of the 1960s, now himself a half-century old, Amis treats several large and related themes. He reviews the basic facts of the terrible Soviet experiment, which he knows chiefly through having read “several yards of books” about it. Then he turns to the early devotion of his father’s generation to that experiment and their subsequent rejection of it; Kingsley Amis wrote an essay called “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right” in 1967, and his friend Robert Conquest published a history of Soviet terror. Martin’s generation embraced all things leftist during the revolutionary years of the Vietnam War and Paris Rouge, a rhetorically excessive time when “policemen and even parking wardens were called fascists.” Some of these themes have, of course, occupied English intellectuals from Orwell’s time on, but Amis brings to them a fresh look helped in its particulars by shocking revelations from now-open Soviet archives. Among the more controversial theses is his well-reasoned suggestion that Soviet Communism was, in the end, worse than Nazism: “Stalin, unlike Hitler, did his worst. . . . Bolshevism was exportable, and produced near-identical results everywhere. Nazism could not be duplicated.” Readers of The Black Book of Communism will find this argument unobjectionable, but it will certainly earn Amis a hiding in the leftist press. Particularly compelling is Martin’s closing letter to Kingsley, now dead, wondering how either father or son could have been taken in by the romantic lie of a worker’s paradise. The author is no David Horowitz, however; he hasn’t gone Tory in middle age, even if he takes well-deserved swipes at Christopher Hitchens and other fellow travelers while confessing his own sins.
Meritorious addition to the bulging shelf of apologia by writers on the noncommunist English left, worth reading by anyone interested in exploring the dark recesses of the recent past.