The People's Act of Love - Book of the Month
by James Meek
This is a story painted on a wide canvas. Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in remote Sibera, a story of love, destruction and evil unfolds. Not for the faint hearted, this novel will take you on a journey so long and vast, it evokes an earlier epoch in storytelling.
This is a story of such size and extremes. Where to start in trying to give a sense of it? There is a fantastic sense of time and place, a clash between groups, characters, ideologies and ultimately between good and evil. Man struggles to make sense of the world, to gain happiness, particularly so in this land of extremes. There is true wickedness and a powerful force of destruction, in a meticulously drawn plot, richly peopled with a multitude of characters. This is a satisfying chunk of Russian history that it is a real pleasure to discover.
It is the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the tiny village of Yazyk, in a frozen and forgotten corner of Siberia, the remote cousin of the vast sprawl of Russia. Siberia is wonderfully drawn as an unkempt, slothful and derelict land, incapable of feeding its people and reluctantly feeling the aftershocks of Revolution. This is a fitting backdrop for acts extreme brutality and cruelty, for the multiple horrors and repeat tableaux of desperation and decay. Here nothing matters and no one cares.
Into this festering landscape Meek has positioned key groups - a garrison of Czech soldiers that has been forgotten and left behind, an isolated Christian sect, whose members are committed to becoming angels and the Red Army.
Out of this muddle emerge important characters who carry the narrative - the insane Czech commander Mutula, his nemesis Mutz, the Christian leader Balashov and local widow Anna Petrovna. Their static world is shattered by the arrival of Samarin, who does not so much represent the destroyer as destruction itself. Samarin is elusive and mercurial, almost a shadow and he comes to represent many things. His mission slowly unfolds – the people’s act of love to its future self, and through Samarin, the world will be dragged towards the future.
The groups are driven by ideologies, sometimes conflicting, although the Czechs are ground down by 5 years of campaigning and just want to go home. The Christians make a small-scale bid for salvation by abandoning the ‘keys to Hell’ and Samarin is an agent of change whose ideology, ‘the Idea’ will ultimately wreak catastrophic, violent change.
When I finished reading it I felt almost shell-shocked. A friend commented that it made her feel like she had been an inhabitant of another land for the duration. It is a mesmerizing book, captivating because it works on so many levels. There are descriptions so powerful, so ridiculously visual that I felt like I must have seen the painting – or watched the film. The language is beautiful – a friend commented that it reads like a translation of a Russian novel. Meek was a Guardian correspondent in Moscow, living there for 10 years. His unobtrusive research, natural sense of the idiom of speech and overall feel for the place can only be born out of the real experience of living there. Apart from that, I have no idea how Meek has managed to get inside the soul of a place quite so effectively. Writers, read this book and weep!
Read our interview with James Meek.