The People's Act of Love: A Novel Paperback – 2006
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
What kind of world does Meek create, then? Most of the novel is set in a small town in the Siberian outback, as the Russian Revolution sweeps from Petrograd in the west to Vladivostok in the east. The revolution hasn't quite made it to this small town, which sits in a kind of political and spiritual limbo: the Czech Legion (having been contracted by the Tsar) is the presiding authority, even though at the moment the Tsar is gone; meanwhile the town's residents, who are involved in a secret mystical sect that demands castration from the men, keep their distance from the political events of the day. Disrupting this fragile equilibrium is the arrival of an escaped convict: the spell-binding and brilliant Samarin, a man who is equal parts fantasist, visionary, revolutionary, and murderer. With Samarin, Meek has created a gripping, indelible figure, one who magnetizes the whole of the novel: we shudder as we follow the trajectory of his mind, and yet we can't help but feel shivers of excitement, too, as he takes us where no sane person would ever hope to go.
In all, a beautifully-written, beautifully-troubling 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.
Yuri Zhivago, who uttered these words in Boris Pasternak's classic tale Dr. Zhivago, would no doubt find common bond with the setting and characters that inhabit James Meek's wonderful book "The People's Act of Love".
Most of the People's Act is set in 1919 in the village of Yazyk, in Siberia. To call Yazyk the middle of nowhere is to give it too much credit. Russia, now the USSR, is in the midst of its post-revolutionary civil war that has caused untold deaths and facilitated illnesses and famine. Yazyk's end-of-the earth location does not insulate it entirely from these events. The town is run by a stranded division of a Czechoslovakian Legion with no apparent means to return to Prague subsequent to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Legion is commanded by Captain Matula who for all intents and purposes is both insane and sadistic. The civilians in the town consist mainly of a mystic sect of eunuchs (the "Skoptsy") who believe their self-immolation removes the one body part responsible for most of the world's sins. As far fetched as this may seem, the presence of stranded Czech soldiers and the existence of a sect of castrati inhabiting parts of Siberia is a matter of record and was not a piece of fiction created by Meek solely for this novel.
The town is also inhabited by Anna Petrovna, who appears to be a widow, and her son. The Red Army is making its way towards Yazyk and intends to seek revenge for an act of brutality committed by the Czechs. A younger stranger, Samarin, makes his way into the town. He tells a fantastic story about escaping from a Siberian labor camp. He indicates that he was fattened up before the escape by his prison `guardian', Mohican, so that could eat Samarin after their food ran out. (This tale of cannibalism is also based on real events.)
The story of each group of protagonists is woven skillfully into the narrative. Although written by a British journalist and author in the 21st-century the narrative tone has a very Russian feel to it. The sentence structure, the formality of the conversation between the characters, and a somber, fatalistic tone will resonate with anyone who has read 19th and 20th century Russian literature. This particular structure holds up extremely well as the stories of each protagonist merge and the novel's conclusion approaches.
The book's title is taken from a line uttered by one of its characters. It is a very appropriate title in the sense that despite (or perhaps because of) the macabre nature of some of the events in the novel one theme that remains constant is the question of love and what we flawed creatures do in its name. In an interview about the novel the author made the following statement: If there is one thing which the four central characters in the book . . . agree on, it is that love exists and matters. What they disagree on is what love may be.
This theme of the infinite variability of love and the horrors and selflessness transacted in its name may sound trite or too well worn a path to go down for some. However, in the hands of Meek it comes across as masterful and compelling. The People's Act of Love was one I had trouble putting down once I got past the introductory chapters. If the test of a good novel is whether or not one continues to think about the story after it has been concluded - then People's Act of Love passes with flying colors. It is a gripping yet thoughtful book and any evocations to Russian authors of the 19th-century should be viewed as a well deserved accolade. L. Fleisig
I have to say, though, that it is not entirely a success. For one thing, it demands more knowledge of early Soviet history than can be expected of every reader: to understand, for example, the timeline of the defeat of the White Russians by the Reds, the history of the Russian prison camps, and the surprising presence of the Czech Legion thousands of miles from home. For another, I personally found that the presence of such diverse elements made the novel difficult to follow, or rather difficult to penetrate to the deeper levels that the author occasionally implies, as he raises questions about fanaticism, religion, and the suitability of means to ends. The cover reviews compare James Meek to Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Pasternak; this is true in that he writes well, and captures the Russian atmosphere memorably. But although Meek juggles them skilfully, themes of this scope really demand to be developed at a length more typical of his great Russian predecessors if the book is to rise above the level of a very good thriller and become a true novel as those authors would have understood the term.
Anna Petrovna is a woman who moves to this isolated community to discover what really happened to the husband she thought had died in battle. Lonely and estranged from the villagers as a non-practitioner, Anna Petrovna stakes her life as bond in order to host Samarin in her home. Has she made a bad choice? Balashov is the enigmatic leader of the religious community, who first meets Samarin on the mountain and through his actions brings Samarin to Anna. His followers seek Utopia through personal sacrifice to God, this sacrifice bringing them closer to being angels on earth. It is Balashov's fate that gives title to the book.
This book gets off to a slow start. At first glance, the opening chapters appear to be individual parables instead of a cohesive narrative. The author created a complex web of interconnecting stories, for which a scorecard would be helpful to keep all the characters straight. Once everything falls into place, a reader who truly enjoys historical fiction will be transported. The attention to detail is extraordinary. Another reviewer commented that this book is reminiscent of classic Russian literature translated into English, rather than contemporary fiction. This isn't an easy read, nor one that is easily forgettable.