It was the intention of James Meek that his third novel, The People's Act of Love, should be written in the manner of the great Russian novels. While I have little to no experience in this branch of literature there were enough idiosyncrasies within the book to believe that he has, at least, achieved this. And, having spent eight years living in Russia whilst following his career in journalism, Meek may be better qualified than most to write a modern take on the Russian novel .
Set in Yazyk, a remote village in the Siberian wilderness, the novel investigates the actions of a small group of people. There is Balashov, the leader of a bizarre Christian sect; Mutz, a Jewish soldier from Prague, who is one of a number of Czech soldiers on the losing side of the Russian Revolution; Anna Petrovna, a young war widow, who lives in the town with her son, Alyosha; and Samarin, an enigmatic escapee from a Siberian prison camp, who is just passing through, being followed, so he says, by another prisoner named the Mohican.
The People's Act of Love is high on drama, and, as the action unfolds the death of a local shaman brings suspicion to Yazyk. Samarin, being the stranger with an unverifiable story, becomes the prime suspect and is imprisoned. When he tells his story to a makeshift court, a long painful narrative about life in a hellhole called the White Garden, he garners sympathy and, at the request of the undersexed Anna Petrovna, goes to stay under her watchful eye.
As the events happen in Yazyk, further tension is added to the fears of the closeknit community by the knowledge that the Reds, winners of the Russian Revolution, are coming. A priority for them is to eliminate the Czech soldiers, men desperate to return home, and claim the town for the People. The leader of the Czech's, a man named Matula, led his men in the massacre at Staraya Krepost for which the Reds want to exercise their own brand of justice.
Meek's prose is wonderful, as fresh and crisp as the snow falling upon the land. In fact, the harsh temperatures of Siberia inform the prose: the description makes use of evocative words suggesting a locale lost in the emptiness of northern Asia. Characters trudge over `papery snow', they wear two jackets, and even the trees are known to shudder.
Throughout the novel there are a number of scenes which are brutal but handled in such a way as to seem unimportant. A man is castrated; another is butchered and the separate parts of his body hung from a tree so that they may dry; while others are sentenced to death for no reason other than the Bolshevik ideal. Matula, also, shows his anti-Semite opinions in the way he talks to Mutz, always referring to him as `Yid' and making light of his religion. It's testament to Meek's ability that he shows us such inhumanities without preaching and leaves it open to the reader to form their opinion on his characters.
Despite how bleak The People's Act of Love gets, it is shot through with an underlying humour that serves some warmth to the frozen landscape. And while the jokes are old, or you know them in some incarnation, they are always spoken by the soldiers who, with their circumstances, can be forgiven as they try to maintain morale.
Another interesting slant, is the book's passing regard to religious fundamentalism. The sect living in Yazyk are Christian but their methods and doctrines are far from standard Christianity. They are castrated to be more like angels and live without sin; a practice bewildering to some of the others living in the town. Not least of all, to Anna Petrovna, whose husband is Balashov, a soldier so devout that he gave up his wife, son, and member to be closer to God.
The main themes, however, are love and sacrifice. Anna Petrovna gives up her normal life to be with Balashov, a man she loves but can never love her again; Balashov's love of God that he would forfeit his sexuality to be with Him; and Samarin, embodiment of the People, who would sacrifice parts of his nature so as to better prepare for the world ahead. In fact, the act of love referred to in the book's title, comes from a conversation with him and Petrovna where he talks about eating a comrade for the greater good, beating off starvation to be able to change the world. Essentially, since the book is shot through with cannibalism references, Meek is asking if there is a right time to eat another human being.
The People's Act of Love was longlisted for the Booker 2005 and, while I've not read all the books that made the eventual shortlist, I wonder if Meek may have missed out on a chance to become more of a public interest. His style is certainly enjoyable, his plotting tight, and his characters tinged with much humanity. I believe Meek's earlier two novels were somewhat different to this book and, based on the change in direction he appears to have taken, we can look forward to an interesting voice for the future.