Journalism

The People's Act of Love

7th May 2006

I obtained a proof copy of this spellbinding novel several months ago. On finishing it, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that I was blown away. I immediately re-read the book, and again found myself full of admiration for the author, believing that he’d produced something absolutely magnificent. When I picked up The People’s Act of Love again recently, I thought that with the perspective of distance and little bit of mature reflection, I might be able to lower my sights somewhat. I was completely wrong. I remain thoroughly convinced that The People’s Act of Love is one of the greatest novels ever written, in any time. Too often book reviewers will purr over novels that purport to address the ‘human condition’, invariably stressing the work’s supposed ‘life-affirming’ qualities. Usually, however, there is no concomitant discussion as to what such terms actually signify. Cultural bias is often operating here. We head off on our summer holidays, briefly liberated from the pressures of work, and con ourselves into believing that our airport-procured read, habitually set in the Mediterranean, fits this ‘life-affirmation’ bill. Lavish descriptions of the landscapes, the flora and fauna, and most of all, the cooking and wine of Provence, Tuscany or the Greek islands customarily ticks most of the requisite boxes. Putting aside our cultural baggage for a minute, its worthwhile going back to basics and thinking about exactly what our ‘human condition’ is. Humans are unique animals in that we know that we are going to die at some point. The compensation we are given for this knowledge is that we have the capacity to love. We need each other, and have an innate drive towards improving our lives and our community, yet are cursed with a greedy, destructive edge. In western society we are averse to contemplating our own death, as our prevailing values of individualism and materialism are probably unsustainable if we’re forced to regard them in the context of the futility of our mortal finiteness. Therefore writers who strive to deal with difficult or challenging material are often labeled as anti-life depressives. This, of course, is arrant nonsense. Buddhists contemplate death every day and you will seldom meet a morose one. Poor mental health comes not from the rejection of the inevitability of death but from the denial of its possibility. Thus the most depressed and dull people I’ve personally ever met have been authors and poets whose work is continually touted as ‘life-affirming.’ The problem for the novelist who aspires to be an artist rather than merely an entertainer, is to try and address this on some level. James Meek does so by raising a powerful question: under what circumstance is eating another human being justifiable? This concept is not debated in an existential manner in the drawing room of an affluent western city. The People’s Act of Love is set in the coldest, most isolated part of Siberia in revolutionary Russia, where this question is rendered a stark and immediate dilemma. And the author, having the courage to get his hands dirty, resoundingly comes up trumps. The result is a beautifully written novel set in the past that20feels like the most contemporary fiction you’ll ever read. The People’s Act of Love said more to me about our world than a hundred works that dance around modern events like ‘nine-eleven’ or the Iraq Occupation. One of the interesting benefits of opting to go down the historical novel route is that it frees the author from having to address the pop culture and media society that many writers are obsessed with. By sidestepping this, James Meek is able to concentrate fully on place, character and storyline. One thing The People’s Act of Love achieves is to show, through it’s absence, how trivial, shallow and insignificant our modern culture is, while also making our obsession with it seem utterly ludicrous. There is more than enough going on in this marvelous novel that makes us forget about the shabby ennui of post-modern fiction. The tale features a renegade Czech army unit ran by a despot named Matula. This garrison is stranded in a community of religious fanatics in a small, remote town in Siberia. Matula has his nemesis in one of his brother officers. Mutz is an uptight but humane and principled Jew, an outsider in his own militia. Matula spares his brother officer none of the prevailing anti-semitism: Damn you, Jew boy, no wonder the Austrian empire fell apart, taking your kind into its army. The only thing I can’t understand is whether your tribe is mentally defective or whether this is part of your conspiracy, like that bunch of Yids waving the red banner in Petrograd. With comrades like these it’s little wonder that Mutz seeks solace in the arms of Anna Petrovna, a beautiful war widow who has her own reasons for staying in this community. Anna’s dilemma is rendered palpable by the extreme behaviour of her previous lover and she emerges as the most sympathetic individual in the book. Into this frozen wasteland but emotional cauldron is cast the enigmatic escaped convict Samarin, and the resulting story is simply irresistible. One of the most fascinating characters in modern fiction, Samarin is a warped perfectionist, and his chilling, nihilistic rationality almost persuades even as the maniacal self-defeated nature of it stares one in the face. As an agent of darkness he is more convincing than either Keyser Sousee from Usual Suspects or Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. When he chillingly tells Anna Petrovna about the man who is his supposed foe (but actually himself) he declares: He’s a man so dedicated to the happiness of the future world that he sets himself to destroy all the corrupt and cruel functionaries he can…till he’s destroyed himself. He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction…to hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary men would be strange, like putting wolves on trial for killing an elk, or trying to shoot the wind. When this novel is finally scripted for cinema, and if the screenplay does justice to the book (a massive ask, incidentally) most top actors will be desperate to land this part. If the right one is recruited, he will produce a career best. You could write page after page on the possible reference points for this incredible novel; it reads like a modern Hearts of Darkness, and Coppolla’s Vietnam remake Apocalypse Now, fused together with the great Russian masters like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. In the end though, The People’s Act of Love stands alone as a perfectly realised work, with James Meek fulfilling his own great potential as a storyteller, tying in his surreal fiction writing abilities and dark, quirky wit, with his great understanding of Russia. Meek’s breadth of humanity and his empathy for Russia and the Ukraine especially, will have impressed those who have followed his award-winning journalism from Eastern Europe, in both this newspaper and the Scotsman. Others who have come into contact with his previous fiction will not be surprised that he’s produced a book as good as this, but impressed by the way he’s managed to pull all his talents together and focus them to this end. The quality of the writing is uniformly excellent. Meek has the ability to project horror and beauty as parallel lines of the same track, as when one character recalls his own castration as a religious rite: The four men kneeled in front of me and began to pray. At intervals I was given responses to make. One of the apprentices held my arms behind my back; the other two held the ankles of my open legs. Chanov bent over me, lifted my member with his left hand and brought the knife down quickly with the other. In that one moment it seemed that God turned his face away and the fear smothered the joy. The silly but persistent notion that the novel is dead, or that modern fiction cannot tell us anything startling and thought-provoking about our humanity or the world we live in, is repeatedly debunked by this book. The People’s Act has a timeless quality; it will be read, referenced, studied and talked about for years to come. And for those of us who make our living through writing novels, the twinge of jealousy even the most gracious will inevitably feel, will fortunately be off-set by the massive inspiration this book provides. The People’s Act of Love is a modern masterpiece, and I say this because during my life I’ve worked my way through most of the novels regularly cited on the lists of the greatest works of fiction.20Right now, I’m genuinely struggling to find that many that I would say are blessed with anything like the excellence of this book. At the moment my own personal envy extends to those who have yet to read this superlative-inducing novel: you are in for one hell of a treat.

 

Originally featured in the Guardian.