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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Koba the Dread

Martin Amis

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To purchase Koba the Dread

Title: Koba the Dread
Author: Martin Amis
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 277 pages
Availability: Koba the Dread - US
Koba the Dread - UK
Koba the Dread - Canada
Koba der Schreckliche - Deutschland
  • Laughter and the Twenty Million
  • With 19 photographs

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Our Assessment:

B- : often powerful -- but baffling in purpose and presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 9/2002 Christopher Hitchens
Commentary . 10/2002 David Pryce-Jones
Daily Telegraph A 31/8/2002 Harry Mount
The Economist . 13/7/2002 .
Entertainment Weekly B- 23/7/2002 Troy Patterson
FAZ . 10/9/2002 Gina Thomas
FAZ . 11/8/2007 Andreas Platthaus
The Guardian . 7/9/2002 Neal Ascherson
History Today . 11/2002 S.A.Smith
London Rev. of Books . 17/10/2002 Frank Kermode
National Review . 16/7/2002 Andrew Stuttaford
The New Republic . 4/11/2002 Tony Judt
The NY Times . 26/6/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/7/2002 Paul Berman
The Observer . 8/9/2002 Jason Cowley
Salon . 16/7/2002 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/7/2002 Kenneth Baker
The Spectator . 19/10/2002 David Caute
Sunday Telegraph F 1/9/2002 Orlando Figes
Sydney Morning Herald . 16/11/2002 Roger Markwick
TLS . 23/8/2002 Zinovy Zinik
The Washington Post . 21/7/2002 Gary Shteyngart
Die Welt . 25/8/2007 Daniel Kehlmann

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but the majority of opinion is decidedly negative -- and very many use the words "self-indulgent"

  From the Reviews:

  • "His is a short work, and one cannot ask for a complete theory of modern ideology and the various deathtraps it sets for the body and the mind. However, much of the space that could have been devoted to a little inquiry is instead given over to some rather odd reflections on Amis's family life (.....) But the transition from macro- to micro-humanity is uneasy at its best." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "But the most damning aspect of Amis's rendering is that in it, Stalin dwindles into just one more comic Russian turn among others, and whether he was mad or complying with the logic of tyranny ceases to be of real significance. The awful, unutterable reality of what happened under Stalin -- and under Hitler--is strangled in a childish conceit. The third and closing section of this book is like a diary, the random notes of a self-indulgent author." - David Pryce-Jones, Commentary

  • "But, shaming as it is to say, like an adolescent flicking through the serious articles in Playboy to get to the photographs, you find yourself rushing through the endless torturings and beatings of Thirties Russia to get to the parts about the single death that opens and closes the book -- that of Martin Amis's younger sister, Sally (.....) So this strange disjunction remains unresolved, and the reader must be left to enjoy what really amounts to two separate short books: a tragic family memoir -- a sort of sequel to Amis's Experience (2000) -- and a brilliant historical essay." - Harry Mount, Daily Telegraph

  • "The middle and longest part of Mr Amis's book is a catalogue of Stalinist horror (.....) It is worth reading even if you think you know this appalling record already, if only for the vehemence and urgency of Mr Amis's prose." - The Economist

  • "The novelist's take on Sovietism is a high-end clip job in which he regurgitates the writings of historians, dissidents, and apparatchiks and briefly demonstrates the thoroughness of Stalin's evil. (...) Though the catalog of atrocities is duly atrocious, there is no fresh thesis, and Amis' autobiographical intrusions (...) fit poorly with his discussion of purges and prison camps." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Der brillante Stilist Amis wird vom eifernden Essayisten fortgerissen -- dass er mit allem recht hat, was er gegen die Sowjetherrschaft anführt, tut nichts zur Sache. Das wusste man, sofern man es wissen wollte, vorher." - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This book, coming after Amis's memoir Experience, belongs to a process of autobiography. At one level, it is about history (.....) But Koba the Dread is also a halt by a man in middle life, a pause on the road to ask questions, which cannot be avoided if that life is to be honestly told. (...) Surprisingly, the weakest element in the book is its handling of Stalin. A brilliant novelist reaches into the dark for this creature but fails to reconstruct a character out of the slimy bits he can feel." - Neal Ascherson, The Guardian

  • "But Amis is not interested in historical explanation. Moralistic denunciation will suffice. Nor is he too fussed about facts. (...) And Amis makes a basic mistake of engaging in stylistic analysis of texts in English translation." - S. A. Smith, History Today

  • "This book is primarily the product of some fiercely hard reading, a raction to the shock of finding something out from books. It has some directly autobiographical elements (.....) But fierce reading is what this book is about, and these other passages seem intrusive." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "It is a curious, compelling but more than occasionally self-indulgent work, a meditation that uneasily combines snatches of its writer's autobiography with tales of the Soviet holocaust. The tone too seems just slightly off. (...) It's not just the tone and the awkward snippets of autobiography. Martin Amis's style, mannered, arch and self-consciously clever, also seems out of place, an all too elegant frame for such a crude and bloody canvas." - Andrew Stuttaford, National Review

  • "A bizarre, self-indulgent essay that tells you as much about its author as about the tyrant ("Koba") himself, and more than you probably wanted to know. (...) (H)e is ever-present among his quotations, and he is very intrusive. His lazy writing confuses the story (.....) The great sufferings of millions of strangers have been collated and presented for the author's personal purposes. I am sure this is not what he thought he was up to; but the result is the same. (...) I dislike this book intensely" - Tony Judt, The New Republic

  • "(S)elf-conscious and sometimes self-indulgent (.....) Mr. Amis's own commentary tends toward the pretentious and gratuitously literary. (...) Where Mr. Amis is at his best is in using his arsenal of literary skills to creat a compelling narrative" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Martin Amis's Koba the Dread has got to be one of the oddest books about Stalin ever written, indignant, angry, personal and strangely touching. (...) This mixture of colors and themes, the broad historical ruminations daubed with intimate commentary, produces, in the end, a very curiously tinted book, idiosyncratic in the extreme. (...) Koba the Dread is not a great book about Stalin, and it is less than a useful meditation on totalitarianism and the Western intellectuals." - Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But, in seeking to honour the old Conradian dictum that any work aspiring to the condition of art must carry its justification in every line, he too often embellishes and distorts what should be simple and clear -- such as the writing of a political memoir. It is why the long middle section of this book, a biographical essay on Stalin drawn entirely from over-familiar secondary material and febrile with psycho-historical speculation, reads as little more than an exercise in style, in ostentatious display." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "His prose gives off a sense of appalled wonder. Underneath the steady accumulation of facts and horror stories, Amis is asking how anyone in his or her right mind can still consider Marxism as a means to a more just world; how people (like his pal Hitchens) can joke about their communist past without invoking the horror that someone who joked about his fascist past would; how the apologists for Stalin, despite having plenty of evidence as to the truth of Soviet Russia before glasnost, can be thought of any differently from Holocaust deniers." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "Koba the Dread is heartfelt but is, for Amis, an unshapely piece of work. Did he begin his research with a novel in mind, believing that the catastrophe of Stalinism was, like nuclear weapons, an enormity that any serious 21st century writer must confront ?" - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Itís not news but itís new in the telling." - David Caute, The Spectator

  • "The blurb claims that "Amis gives us perhaps the best one hundred pages ever written about Stalin". In fact, as a piece of history-writing, they are unoriginal and even second-rate. (...) More alarmingly, there are basic factual errors on almost every other page.(...) However, it is not the history section of this book which really stinks, but the egocentric way in which Amis tries to link the fate of Stalin's Russia with his own experience in the personal sections." - Orlando Figes, Sunday Telegraph

  • "These complexities of the Soviet experience completely escape Amis. Cynicism breeds intellectual indolence. Meretricious expression substitutes for thought" - Roger Markwick, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The whole story of Stalin becomes for Amis one big ironical parable." - Zinovy Zinik, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(H)arrowing and strangely funny (.....) Along with his treatise on Stalin, Amis presents something of a memoir (...) These sections are not needed; the Bolshevik experience speaks for itself. Nevertheless, Koba the Dread is not easy to forget." - Gary Shteyngart, The Washington Post

  • "Es ist ein seltsames Buch, sehr verstörend, sehr lehrreich, sehr brillant; voller klug arrangierter Fakten, aber auch voll Zorn und Entsetzen." - Daniel Kehlmann, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What on earth is Koba the Dread meant to be ?
       Martin Amis' book is, for the most part, a cursory examination of the life of -- and the horrors perpetrated by -- Stalin. It does the horrors well -- insofar as horrors can be done well. But Amis quotes extensively, and the book sometimes seems little more than a digest of the great (and not so great) literature on Stalin, the Gulags, the Bolsheviks, etc. etc. (The mishmash presentation isn't helped any by Amis' uneven attributions -- and instead of anything resembling a proper bibliography (at least in the US edition) the three-plus pages of Permissions are printed in a single sentence). In other words: essentially all of this -- the Stalinist exposé which makes up almost all the book -- has been done elsewhere, in more detail, by people with more expertise (eyewitnesses, participants, historians, etc.). All Amis offers is a condensed assemblage of this various material (done, admittedly, with often considerable theatrical flair).
       Amis doesn't claim to be an expert, but he chooses to offer "credentials" two pages into the book. He offers something, anyway: we're not sure which of the statements are meant to be taken as his credentials (taking the word literally to mean: allowing us to put our trust and faith in this writer) as regards this undertaking. The page-long section offers information such as:

  • He is "a fifty-two-year-old novelist and critic"
  • He "has recently read several yards of books about the Soviet experiment"
  • He attended the celebrations at the Millennium Dome on 31 December 1999 (hoping for a "chiliastic frisson" at 24:00)
  • His sister, Sally, died the following year
       No doubt about his yard-long reading: the distillations offered over the next two hundred seventy pages prove as much. But such a list of supposed credentials does not bode well for the book; at best, it is merely confusing.
       For most of the book Amis goes on and on about Stalin and some very horrible horrors for which the Soviet dictator is to blame. Amis writes: "The real story -- the truth -- was entirely unbelievable." And, like the Nazi horrors or the doings of the Khmer Rouge or recent Rwandan excesses (to take just three of far too many examples), the truth is, in a way, entirely unbelievble. Most people don't want to acknowledge man's savage treatment of fellow man at what seems like nearly every opportunity. But Stalin's outrages rank right up there, as Amis graphically makes clear -- and they do differ from most of the many others just because of their sheer scale (the long period over which they extended, the vast number of people affected).
       But Amis writes like he is trying to convince someone -- as though there were still some people who though Stalin was a decent, misunderstood fellow. And that isn't a convincing premise. Certainly, Amis isn't entirely wrong when he writes:
       Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetsky.
       Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky.
       Everybody knows of the 6 million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the 6 million of the Terror-Famine.
       But it's simply the details that are recalled differently, more names put to faces (and Eichmann, for example, is surely remembered largely because he was very publicly tried and not because of his specific crimes). All told, Stalin is surely remembered as a monster belonging in the same pantheon as Hitler, and the suffering of those he (mis)ruled is surely well and widely known, a truth universally acknowledged (and therefore one that might not be in need of this specific sort of repeating).
       (Indeed, there is something obscene about trying to compare these horrors, and trying to rank them in some way -- and one might as readily complain of Amis' book: there is not a single mention of Pol Pot, and only brief asides about Mao (who brought similar suffering on his people -- even on a similar scale), the only mention of Saddam Hussein is indirect (son Uday appears, but not dad), there is no mention of King Leopold's Congo, of Rwanda, of Milosevic, the North Korean Kims (true Stalinists, in every respect) etc. etc. etc. etc. And the objection seems a significant one: Stalin's legacy lived on, but was soon watered down (his successors managed nowhere near his excesses), and he died half a century ago -- Pol Pot's crimes are more recent (and his regime was supported by the US, for example, even after Viet Nam invaded and stopped the worst of the crimes), Rwanda and Milosevic were more recent still, while mini-Stalinist (in all respects) dictators control most of the post-Soviet Central Asian states: wouldn't drawing attention to these outrages (and seeking change where they continue to exist or threaten to occur) be the far more valuable exercise ?)
       Amis' account of Stalin's outrages: it's strong stuff. The horrors are as horrible as one might imagine, and Amis presents them fairly effectively (weakened only, slightly, by the ever-present personal, the polemicist who can't let go of being the novelist -- it makes it more emotional and yet ultimately less compelling). Words fail one: its seems inconceivable that there could be such evil. Amis gives many, many examples. Tragically, he could give an almost infinite number more: the personal tragedies truly were almost innumerable. Twenty million is the number given in the subtitle, but like the six million who perished in the Nazi death camps or the eight hundred thousand recently killed in Rwanda, the sheer number (regardless of whatever it actually was) is essentially beyond comprehension. A risk in any such account is that it wears the reader down, that horror itself becomes tedious -- and it's something Amis isn't able to entirely avoid. There are moments -- shockingly -- when his account actually becomes boring.
       His analysis of Stalin is decent, if a bit cartoonish -- he has some good ideas, and he's always clever with expression. But it remains glib, too, and avoids some of the significant questions. Stalin's popularity is addressed, but Soviet successes are largely ignored (and, despite all that Stalin did, there were successes, the Soviet Union did, amazingly, function on a certain level).
       Koba the Dread is not, however, solely about Stalin. Amis the ranter (and son and father and writer) remains a prominent presence -- as does his father, one-time card-carrying Communist Kingsley, and various acquaintances, notably Christopher Hitchens.
       In a way the book seems to be a challenge to Kingsley and Hitchens. Amis doesn't really wonder why someone in Kingsley or Hitchens' position might have supported the Soviet regime, or voiced admiration or support for Lenin or anything of the sort; he merely presents a (fairly convincing) case for why doing so is insupportable.
       Two brief sections of the book are, in fact, directly addressed to Kingsley and Hitchens -- a "Letter to a Friend", and a "Letter to My Father's Ghost". In the latter he does allow for a few excuses why dad might have been, for a few years, misguided -- but he's not willing to consider it more closely, to really confront the issue and all its implications (which, spun out, would surely have made for a far more interesting book).
       Comrade Hitchens (as Amis addresses him in his letter) is a bit more complicated issue, and Amis mainly harps on his continued "reverence for Lenin and your unregretted discipleship of Trotsky". These two were also at fault, making Stalinism possible, Amis argues. It's an argument one can make, but for most of the book Amis hadn't bothered with it much. Stalin was the focus -- but as even Amis acknowledges early on (albeit only in a footnote) "Christopher, like James Fenton, and all other Trotskyists known to me) was, of course, strenuously anti-Stalinist".
       So who, exactly, is Amis trying to convince ? And of what ?
       We couldn't figure it out.

       The book's personal touch, with Amis presenting family anecdotes, harping on his sister Sally's death, and with his odd letter to his dad also strikes an odd (and to us largely annoying) note. The letter bothers most of all: is there anything as unseemly as writing to the dead -- and then publishing it ? Isn't it a fundamental dishonesty from a novelist -- always keenly aware of who his readers are (and certainly never counting (or expecting) dead people among them) -- to do something like this in such a non-fiction work ? And how can one not cringe when Amis (known for his occasional cynical and sharp wit) suggests to dear old departed dad: "Rest, rest perturbed soul" ? (Indeed, we can't help but suspect that the letter is a joke, a pathetic indulgence meant to move the reader while the author laughs at the reader's gullibility -- but we hope that even Amis can't be that cruel.)
       One personal touch, however, rings true and is fairly well presented -- one for which Amis got quite a bit of bad press (unfairly, we would argue). He confesses a sin, that of calling his daughter by an unfortunate nickname: Butyrki, the name of a notorious Soviet prison. It's an awful nickname, chosen for an awful reason -- but Amis owns up to it, and while his explanation doesn't excuse it (as he admits: "It isn't right, is it ?"), it makes it understandable.
       It's there, though, in this Butyrki anecdote, that Amis perhaps most disappoints. The letter to dead dad is perhaps excusable (either as a joke or as something intensely personal (and unwisely included, in this form, in this book)), but Amis closes the brief Butryki section:
And it isn't right. Because my daughter's name is Clio: muse of history.
       It's not a sentence worthy of Amis. It's a literary trick out of the hack-repertoire (and it's not even right, because, of all the reasons the nickname "isn't right", this is among the least significant), the sort of thing Amis would surely disdain if he came across it in any fiction. It's awful, really. (To top it off, it's also badly pulled off: the revelation of the name is meant to be a surprise, and "Amis, Clio" indeed only gets this single reference in the book's index. But less than twenty pages earlier Amis had babbled about his daughters to Comrade Hitchens ("Fernanda has learned how to swim, Clio has learned how to talk") and so the name doesn't come at all as a surprise.)

       Amis does write well, and often engagingly, but in Koba the Dread the mix of history, political tutorial, opinion, and personal anecdotes is an uneasy (and ineffective) one. There is no clear sense of what the book is meant to be, or to whom it is addressed (with bits being literally addressed to Christopher Hitchens and dead Kingsley Amis).
       As a brief survey of Soviet failure, 1917 to 1953, it is modestly effective -- and certainly vivid. As a condemnation of everything about Stalin it is quite good. But it's not satisfied to be merely either of those things. And as an indictment of a few specific Brits who believe(d) in aspects of the Soviet experiment it fails. And as a book it fails.
       Amis is worth reading, and there are bits about his family life, his New Statesman days, his friendships that are of interest. But the book as a whole is more confounding than anything else.

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Koba the Dread: Reviews: Martin Amis: Other books by Martin Amis under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore's far superior biography, Stalin
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Amis lived 1949 to 2023.

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© 2003-2023 the complete review

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