How that the Booker Prize, with its surprising snubs and predictable disappointments, is over for the year, it’s time to venture into the long list, where British author James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love was inexplic-ably left to wallow. Don’t be daunted by its stark cover or enigmatic title, by its Russian and Czech names, by the apparent Zhivago-ish largeness of its scope, by its often graphic violence, or by its cheery plot-points of self-mutilation and cannibalism. This is a fantastic novel – a big story set in a vast country, cinematic and gripping, with the kind of well-conceived plot that’s designed to hook readers, not simply add pages to a saga or squeeze in an overabundance of research. Despite the book’s generous length, it’s a tight story, circling in on itself, in which every detail counts. Even narrative choices that might be hackneyed devices or momentum-killers in another writer’s hands – like a long, secret-revealing letter, or an even longer courtroom testimony – build the suspense, and are crucial plot elements in their own right.
The novel begins twice: first in 1910, in a town on the Volga, where a student called Samarin falls in love with Katya, an aspiring revolutionary who gets arrested for carrying pamphlets and bombs. In the second chapter, it’s 1919; the Great War has come and gone, and now Russia is at war with itself. Samarin is a wild-looking outcast wandering deepest
Siberia, where Europe has given way to Asia, and civilisation appears to have given way altogether. He removes a package from inside his coat – a human hand, which he hurls into the river – and watches a man and seven horses tumble to their deaths from a passing train. He meets a man named Balashov, who leads Samarin to the nearby town of Yasyk.
Balashov says he’s a local barber. Samarin says that he’s escaped from one of Siberia’s notorious prison camps, a place nicknamed the White Garden – “you can’t imagine how far, how cold, how forgotten” – in the Arctic Circle. He’s seeking refuge from a fellow escapee, a savage career criminal known as the Mohican, who intends to use Samarin as an edible “cow” when their food supply runs out.
Neither man is telling the whole truth, and Yasyk is not your everyday small Siberian hamlet. Its population is comprised of a weird Christian sect led by Balashov, the members of which whirl like dervishes and demand a shocking ritual of initiation. Also stuck in town is a company of the Czechoslovak Legion, hired guns who fought the Germans and then the Reds, and are now stranded. They want to go home – all but their psychopathic captain, Matula, who enjoys nothing more than a good massacre and sees, in Siberia’s vast stretches, the demented vision of a personal empire.
When Samarin arrives in town, the Czechs are a total mess: “A hundred men with 945 toes between them, the balance lost to frostbite, and 980 fingers; 199 eyes; 198 feet; 196 hands; stomachs scored by microbes; one in ten syphilitic, one in ten consumptive, and most tasting the foul tang of scurvy.”
Matula knows the Red Army is on its way, but he’s focused on snorting cocaine, extorting a self-serving vision from a native shaman, and on finding an excuse to kill the sole Jew in the company, Lieutenant Josef Mutz. Mutz provides the novel’s moral centre: he’s an intelligent and compassionate man trying to deal with political and religious extremists, as well as the revolting memories of war. He is also in love with Anna Petrov-na, the town’s resident outsider. She’s an exile from European Russia, a passionate woman who takes photographs and smokes cigarettes; her presence in Yasyk disrupts, confuses and transforms, for better or worse, the lives of Mutz, Samarin and Balashov.
Throughout the novel we gain more insight into these four principals and their secrets, their self-deceptions, the way they’re blinded by passions for a person or a cause. Samarin warns us that the Mohican “draws us one stroke after the other, but the strokes can be anywhere on the paper. When you watch, the strokes look disjointed and meaningless, but in his mind he sees the whole picture, complete.” You need to keep reading to discover the whole picture in The People’s Act of Love, because the way the novel unfolds surprises and manipulates us, just as the town is manipulated by Samarin. Meek rewards us with characters we care about, and characters we fear, with language that feels crisp and fresh as new snow, in a novel that explores big ideas – sex and death, humanity and evil, guilt and redemption – without ever taking its eye off the story.
THE PEOPLE’S ACT OF LOVE, by James Meek (Canongate, $35).