Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye, Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes


THE cold war may not be quite over, after all. For more than a decade, writers of thrillers and spy novels — and not a few conservative strategists — have been bedeviled by the transformation of the evocative evil empire into an oligarchic quasi-capitalist power. The world has provided other villains, but the peculiar charm of the pallid, citrus-starved Slavic heavy persists. And a spate of recent deaths of Russian whistle-blowers — most recently the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and the polonium 210 poisoning of the former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London — shows that the Soviet back story isn’t entirely buried. Like the Stalinesque corpse that keeps popping up in Tengiz Abuladze’s film “Repentance” (from the now-quaint Glasnost era), dark secrets have an afterlife. And when you dig them up, you sometimes find evil interred with the bones. The narrator and protagonist (by no stretch could you call him the hero) of Martin Amis’s new novel, “House of Meetings,” is an archetype of the eternal Soviet nightmare, a decorated war veteran who “raped my way across what would soon be East Germany” in the first three months of 1945. Now an octogenarian American exile, returning to Russia as a tourist, the unnamed man is recording his complicated history, dominated by the dozen years he spent as a political prisoner in a Soviet gulag, in a letter to his mythically named stepdaughter, Venus, whom he acquired peacefully and late in life, in the United States.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.