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The People's Act of Love Hardcover – November 16, 2005
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James Meek has won several awards for his journalism and his fiction, but The People's Act Of Love is a singular departure from all that came before. It is a big Russian novel, written in English. Meek has upped the ante on such books as Cold Mountain and The March in bringing the reader his version of the unspeakable horror and brutality of war, the colder-than-cold winter, the cruelty and humanity of people in extremis.
It is 1919 in Yazyk, Siberia, far from anywhere. The war is waning, but its ravages remain. There is an uneasy detente between a group of Czech soldiers, marooned on the losing side and longing to go home, and a fanatical Christian sect that practices castration as a means of purifying themselves. One of their number is their leader, Balashov, married to a beautiful and restive photographer, Anna Petrovna, who has come to the village of Yazyk to raise her son, after learning of her husband's castration. Her fury knows no bounds. She gives herself to anyone who is interested as a means of shaming Balashov, and satisfying her own appetites.
Into this motley collection of people comes a stranger, Samarin, who says he has escaped from The White Garden, Russia's northernmost prison camp, a place of unbelievable barbarism. Shortly after his arrival, the village shaman, possessed of a third eye and an albino sidekick, is found murdered. Suspicion falls immediately on Samarin. In successive chapters, Meek has each person or faction tell his or her story. Samarin, a revolutionary, charismatic visionary, every bit as zealous as the castrates, tells of his escape. Matula, the crazy, cocaine-snorting leader of the Czechs, doesn't really want to go home, so he prevents his soldiers from leaving. Mutz, a sensible sort, quite taken with Anna, dreams of home and keeps hope alive among his soldiers. Balashov tells of what led him to castrate himself.
The hopes, wishes, dreams, and illusions of all these people converge in Meek's novel. He shows man as pure, base, megalomaniacal, rational, intelligent, incredibly stupid--every aspect of humanity is examined, especially compassion. Despite the horrid excesses of war--and peace--Meek, in their telling, weaves a completely believable story of what happens to people who are not just at the margins of the world, but at the edge of their ability to understand themselves and the world around them. (The people's act of love, by the way, has nothing to do with love: it is cannibalism.) Don't miss this extraordinary novel; it is hugely deep and satisfying. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Set during the waning days of the Russian revolution, Meek's utterly absorbing novel (after The Museum of Doubt) captivates with its depiction of human nature in all its wartime extremes. In 1919, the remote Siberian town of Yazyk contains a strange brew of humanity: the docile members of a mystical Christian sect, whose longing for purity drives them to self-mutilation; a small outfit of Czech troops, marooned by the civil war and led by the mad cocaine-snorting Captain Matula; and "the widow" Anna Petrovna, whose passion for worldly things (e.g., photography and men) isolates her from the devout townspeople. When the charismatic revolutionary, Samarin, trudges into town with a harrowing tale of escape from a distant labor camp and a dangerous philosophy, Yazyk becomes a theater of bloodshed and betrayal as well as heroism and compassion. Using the town as a microcosm of the larger war, Meek illuminates both perverted ideology and irrepressible humanity. With confident prose, layered storytelling and prodigious imagination, he combines scenes of heart-pounding action and jaw-dropping revelations with moments of quiet tension and sly humor. This original, literary page-turner succeeds both with its credible psychological detail and in its grandeur and sweep.
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Through the eyes of several people present in a small town in the wilderness of Siberia, we see all the chaos and cynicism as well as dreams and aspirations of the time reflected. The characters, among which we find a mysterious cannibal, a Cavalry officer who becomes a member of a bizarre sect, a Jewish officer in the Czechoslovak Legion, and a woman with a gift for photography, may not be immediately likable, but they are certain to make a strong impression on the reader. Meek weaves the story of the meeting and eventual clash of all these characters together very well, making excellent use of evocative flashbacks, letters and monologues to create narrative tension, while maintaining at the same time a high pace of action.
The storyline is generally violent and cynical, as fits those times, and the brutal backdrop of Siberia in winter during times of shortage only serves to heighten the tension. After the various characters find themselves in Siberia, the Czechslovak Legion's presence in the area, an interesting yet historically real adventure tale, becomes the pivot around which all the events unfold. The bitterness of the cold as well as the people and their ideals portrays this crossing in Russia's history very well, and Meek has done a good job keeping the storyline actually exciting with constant surprises and plot twists. Although some of the praise on the cover must surely be taken as hyperbole, this is certainly an intriguing and riveting book, and well worth picking up to read on a lonely winter night.
NB: My review applies to the Dutch translation of this book only, as I have not read the English original. I see no reason to assume there are material differences between the two though.
James Meek has written a marvelous story-telling in this novel. It portrays the Russian revolution in such detail you would think you are in the world of 1917. So many characters woven into effortless story lines, so that the story grabs our attention. The characters are revealed in a central figure, and we are able at last to understand the drama and the truth. James Meek attended Edinburgh University and as a journalist for the "Guardian" and "Observer" reported from Russia for ten years. He has been able to show us the horrific sights and scenes of Siberia: cruelty, murder and cannibalism. And, yet the sun shining on the snow, the love of a man and a woman; the everyday life of those who live the best they can.
Samarin, one of the main characters shows up in tiny, poor Yazyk, a Siberian community. His story is that of a political prisoner, a run-away from a horrible place in the Arctic. He has escaped with "Mohican" a guard at this prison. Mohican took Samarin with him, it seems, to eat his flesh. Samarin's story is slowly unraveled, but not before we meet the other characters. An extreme Christian sect that castrates its members so they can be called angels. A group of Czechoslovakian legions, trying to leave this God-forbidden place, led by Lieutenant Mutz. Mutz loves the earth and a woman, Anna Petrovna. Anna is the wife of the leader of the Christian sect. She is also a woman who loves men and sex, photography and her son.
All these characters and more who are puzzled about many events. They learn as we do, when the puzzle begins to fit; the meaning of the extremes of the political, the spiritual and the humanity. There are heroes and there is goodness. This is a particularly spectacular book, written by a particularly special writer.
Highly recommended. prisrob
Most recent customer reviews
Stupid story. Dreamy language. Too clever by half. Made it through about 30 pages.