Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

This is another surprise from an author I’m getting used to being surprised by. Amis has the reputation of writing realistic comic novels about the contemporary world, skewering contemporary trends and types with a speciality in documenting scabrous and often misogynistic ‘problems with girls’ – but of the seven novels before this one, only two fit this description while the others are all experimental in one shade or another – ghost stories, detective stories, science fiction, alternative worlds – and this one, again, is an experimental or genre novel.

Russian Hide and Seek

The novel opens with an obviously Russian character named Alexander Petrovsky riding a horse through extensive grounds to a grand house, meeting his sister and mother, then preparing for a formal dinner, mentioning Tolstoy and Chekhov, and so I thought I was (unexpectedly) in a novel set among Russia’s bored upper classes before the Revolution.

It was disconcerting, then, when, after the formal meal Alexander, the young cavalry officer ‘hero’, goes for a stroll in the garden with Mrs Korotchenko, one of his parents’ guests, and she not only moves rapidly to kiss him, but asks him to help her take her dress off, and then invites him to make love to her on the lawn. Hmmm. Not very 1910. On page 30 there is casual mention of Northampton which is really jarring, making the reader realise this is all set in England. And then there’s an increasing flow of references revealing that we are not only in England, but some time in the 21st century, some 50 years after an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’.

1. So it slowly unfolds that the Russian aristocrats we are following are an occupying power who ignore or put up with the sullen indifference of the ‘native’ English.

2. Just as strikingly, the entire oil-based economy seems to have disappeared – has Amis accepted 1970s predictions that oil will run out? Certainly all the serf English are managing with horses and carts, Alexander uses a horse to get around, only very exceptionally is a petrol car referred to as an extreme luxury, and there’s a brief glimpse of a vast highway with other roads going under and over it, festooned with rusty old blue signs, now empty and abandoned, presumably a disused motorway.

Plot 1 – Context

The start of the plot is that a commission of the occupying forces has been set up to try and restore the English culture which was so completely obliterated at the time of ‘the Pacification’. Officially sanctioned, this leads to a set of scenes which are oddly comic-satiric-touching in tone. First we witness a concert of English music being staged (including numbers by Duke Ellington, obviously a member of the old English aristocracy). Then some ancient plays (Look Back In Anger has its audience in stitches all the way through, presumably a satirical dig at Amis’s contemporary, John Osborne). However, the next night the audience can’t make head or tail of Romeo and Juliet and get so restive that after much booing and yelling someone actually sets fire to the theatre.

Though comic in details (its mostly illiterate native audience have lost any context for such live performances, don’t know they have to keep quiet, completely misunderstand genres, plotlines and the antique language) this rather harrowing vision of a people completely disenfranchised from their own past, their own culture, is quite moving and eerie. Especially in the third of the three scenes where the Russian authorities encourage locals to renovate an old disused church and put on a ‘service’, led by a doddery old man, a ‘vicar’, who is one of the very few ‘prewars’ still alive ie English person who remembers the country before ‘the Pacification’ 50 years earlier.

We are shown the reactions of Alexander and his mistress Kitty and of Kitty’s father Dr Wright to the ‘service’ and then ‘sermon’ delivered by blind old Mr Glover. All of them are perplexed by the antique language and completely misunderstand the language of the hymns and puzzle over the relationship between the three gods referred to in this old pantheon. This amounts to a powerful and slightly haunting vision of what a genuinely post-Christian society would be like, in which Christianity has been completely forgotten and is now a puzzling oddity…

Plot 2 – the Conspiracy

From its opening pages to nearly the end, the novel – told in the third person – follows young, arrogant, unpredictable and self-absorbed cavalry ensign Alexander Petrovsky. We witness relationships among his fellow officers in the 4th Guards, quartered in a former private school in the country outside Northampton. We see him attending a number of formal dinner parties or summer garden parties at local grand mansions, his seduction by Mrs Korotchenko, mentioned above. This deepens into a sort of amusing sado-masochistic relationship in which, every time he visits her, she has thought up kinkier and kinkier scenarios – against the kitchen wall naked, tied and gagged spread-eagled in the bedroom, suspended by ropes in the barn, or joined by her equally naked and depraved 12-year-old daughter. Alexander quickly adapts to her appetites and to her regular demand that, after the actual sex, he tramples over her naked body, preferably wearing his cavalry boots.

About half way through the novel Alexander is sounded out by fellow officer, Theodore Markov, whether he wants to join ‘the Conspiracy’. Turns out there is a Resistance or Underground movement among the Russian occupiers, which plans to overthrow the existing authorities, hand England back to the English, and leave. From the start this plot development seemed unreal and implausible to me. It certainly lacks the psychological depth of something like Winston Smith slowly realising he is an opponent of Big Brother in 1984: Alexander is asked to join and says, Sure, OK. If it was intended to have the grip and excitement of a thriller, it didn’t. I wasn’t gripped, simply curious to see how Amis would play the thing out.

  • Alexander is introduced to fellow conspirators and – since Theodore is in love with his sister, Nina – this includes her and her friend Elizabeth. Everything is set for the revolution the following Sunday.
  • The conspirators become aware that the creepy Director Vanag, head of security, and his secret police may have infiltrated the Conspiracy. It is discovered that Mrs Korotchenko knows a key officer in Vanag’s office and so Alexander is tasked with persuading her to do whatever it takes to persuade the officer to hand over the Top Secret list of spies who’ve infiltrated the Conspiracy. Ie to give in to his requests for sex. This she reluctantly does, but only if Alexander is himself prepared to do what he had up till then refused to, and incorporate her daughter in their sado-masochistic sex sessions, which he shamefully agrees to, though no details are given.
  • A few days later, as soon as Mrs K hands Alexander the list he realises that some of the top leaders of the Conspiracy are in fact double agents. He also understands that his senior officer’s warnings a few days earlier about desisting from keeping dangerous company didn’t, as he thought at the time, refer to Mrs K. He realises the Conspiracy has been thoroughly infiltrated. He goes straight to Theodore and makes the impulsive decision to bring the revolution forward 72 hours. This seems futile and wildly improbable as we have heard that it is a co-ordinated strike, not only across England, but even in Moscow itself. One small cog doesn’t have the authority or contacts to alter a timetable so intricately communicated across such a far-flung network.

Nonetheless, next day Alexander orders his NCO and another soldier to accompany him to the Armoury where they bluff their way past the guard and take possession of the ‘projectile’ weapons which obliterate anything they’re fired at. (Shades of the futuristic weapon, the atom-bullet-firing rifle mentioned in The Anti-Death League). But his men jib at targeting regimental headquarters, as he intends. They point blank refuse to kill their comrades and so Alexander, in a rage which everyone who knows him is all-too-familiar with, rides off on his horse to carry out part two of his mission, followed in hot pursuit by his two mutinous soldiers until he reaches the house of his parents. He storms into the drawing room to confront his father who tells him it is pointless, the Conspiracy is completely infiltrated, every move and aspect of it has been completely anticipated and neutralised. Alexander, not a very likeable person, blusters that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually hope to change anything, by killing his own father he just wants to register  his anger and frustration at the way things are, to show his opposition to the smugness and complacency of the authorities.

As he raises his gun to kill his father – now on his knees begging for his life – one of the two soldiers who had followed him steps through the French windows and shoots Alexander dead. That’s it. That’s the end of the main plot and of the character we’ve been closely following for the past 220 pages. Was I meant to be caught up in the plot, gripped and thrilled and excited? Because if so, it failed. Amis throws in the fact that these final events are set on a hot humid stifling afternoon turning into night, amid an oppressively gathering thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning on the horizon, a melodramatic backdrop to Alexander’s futile actions. But to little or no impact on this reader.

Epilogue

As in his other alternative world story of a few years previously, The Alteration, there is an epilogue which gives the wider context of events and rams home the Author’s Message.

1. Director Vanag gloats to a hall-full of captured conspirators that the entire conspiracy was in fact dreamed up by Moscow purely as a way of flushing out anyone with even slight dissident tendencies. The list Alexander went to such lengths to get hold of was in fact a list of their own genuine leaders who some of the conspirators very usefully proceeded to murder. They were all puppets dancing on a string. They will all now be sent to forced labour camps. Goodbye.

2. Vanag has a one-to-one with Theodore, who had recruited Alexander into the Conspiracy and had been affectionately engaged to Alexander’s young sister, Nina. Both are now under arrest. A living death in the gulag awaits. After mockingly asking Theodore what on earth he expected to achieve, he – in passing – gives a bit more detail about the conquest of Britain, 50 years back.

‘There had been disorders here, runaway inflation, mass unemployment, strikes, strike-breaking, rioting, then much fiercer rioting when a leftist faction seized power. It was our country’s chance to take what she had always wanted most, more than Germany, far more than the Balkans, more even than America. And she took it…’ (p.241)

Author’s message

Is this the point of this odd novel? Is it a warning by an Amis who had swung through the political spectrum from sort-of leftish young man to reactionary old fogey? Is it part of the mind-set and the atmosphere of the late 1970s which thought that under a left-wing Labour party and ravaged by strikes in all sectors of society, Britain was actually collapsing into chaos and economic collapse? The atmosphere in which we know that MI5 bugged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office and there is evidence of the planning of a military coup to overthrow the government? Despite being set in the future, is this strange novel a kind of message from a period of really intense social unrest which most people have forgotten about?

Analysis

The list of ‘spies’ Alexander gets hold of is dated 2035 and, since it is repeatedly stated that all this is happening 50 years after ‘the Pacification’ that sets the Russian invasion of Britain in 1985 ie one year after what was, for many people, still the terrifyingly ominous date 1984, now just a literary footnote.

As in The Alternative the reader is impressed by the fullness with which Amis has imagined and populated this alternative world, fully imagined the psychologies of the occupied English and the occupying forces, imagined the rivalries and small bitternesses and resentments which grease all their exchanges. A distinguishing aspect is the drabness of this world: the Russians have brought their own Soviet shabbiness to bear: everyone’s clothes are badly made and fit badly; the flowers they take pride in are actually undercultivated weeds, the drinks are thin and tasteless, the food is poor, but nobody notices except the narrator because nobody has ever known any better.

On a larger scale the social life depicted in such convincing detail is an oddly diffracted, strangely distorted version of contemporary trends, in that the big parties in the grand houses have a strange 19th century formality, but are shabby and cheap (as mentioned above) and coarse: after a certain hour lots of the guests are fighting drunk, throwing up, crawling around, passed out, or openly fornicating among the bushes.

What makes it such a persuasive fiction is the very mundaneness of this future world with its bad clothes, drunk officers, ersatz drinks, poorly maintained gardens, roads full of potholes, nasty food for the mostly illiterate serf population, a powerful air of provincial humdrum boredom such as you do actually find in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. Amis has successfully transplanted that world to England. It is an extraordinary and disquieting and completely unexpected feat.

However, the book’s strength is its weakness. The heaviness and dullness of the everyday establishes an ambience in which nothing happens so authentically that it is next to impossible to believe the sudden eruption of the Conspiracy. Especially when the psychological motivation of the young men involved is so shallow and casual. A very believable setting; but a disappointingly unbelievable plot.

The title explained

Russian hide and seek turns out to be a stupid game played by the bored officers in Alexander’s troop. they go out into the darkness with loaded revolvers at the end of an evening’s hard drinking, split up, find hiding places, then shout to give away their location and the others take pot shots at them. A sort of variation of Russian roulette. After one terrifying go Alexander realises he is no hero and never does it again. Towards the end of the book a session is held in which one of the officers, Leo, is badly wounded. He is brought into the barracks screaming with pain and fear where the troops’ commanding major, to my surprise, shoots him in the head like a horse. Is this some kind of satire? A comment on the heartlessness of Russians? Or just a cold sci-fi view of the future? Like a lot of things in this disconcerting novel, it is hard to tell.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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