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The People's Act of Love Paperback – December, 2005
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In 1919 Siberia, in the outer reaches of a country recently torn apart by civil war, lives a small Christian sect and its enigmatic leader, Balashov. Stationed in their midst is a company of Czech soldiers, on the losing side of the recent conflict and desperate to get home. Into this isolated community trudges Samarin, an escapee from Russia's northernmost prison. His arrival intrigues many of the locals, including Anna Petrovna, a beautiful young war widow, but when the local shaman is found dead, suspicion and terror engulf the little town..."The People's Act of Love" is an epic drama of desire and sacrifice, a grand table for modern times.
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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
Stupid story. Dreamy language. Too clever by half. Made it through about 30 pages.