By Susan Tomaselli
While it may not be fair to harbour certain expectations for the author’s next book, it sometimes cannot be helped, especially if you’re a fan of a previous book, particularly when the book in question is the Museum of Doubt. James Meek’s wonderful collection of surreal short stories set in small town Scotland, is at turns bizarre, perverse and often hilarious. No amount of re-reading this sadly out-of-print collection will in anyway prepare you for the gravity of The People’s Act of Love.
James Meek’s third novel, set in Siberia during the Russian revolution seems, on first impressions, to be the work of a different writer entirely. A political escapee from the White Garden camp turns up in the small village of Yazyk, where “the black log houses shouldered each other as if they were crowded onto an island.” The characters, much like the houses, crowd each other and include Balashov, a hussar who has become a castrate, his uninhibited wife, Anna and his child who have followed him to Siberia for tranquility, Matula a cruel Czech captain, Mutz a Jewish Czech lieutenant, and a local shaman who is looking for a horse to ride into the other world. It is in this small village where, amongst religious and political extremism, beliefs collide.
The People’s Act of Love is structured around three genuine facts: thousands of Czech soldiers were left stranded in northern Russia, secretive communities of eunuchs, called skoptsy, were ripe throughout the 19th century, and ‘naive’ companions were taken along on Siberian journeys with the sole intention of being a source of food.
Where The Museum of Doubt was sharp and funny, this is a more serious, more cinematic, and much more twisted novel, with readers having to piece together a narrative thread using the connections between the characters. Samarin, the man on the run, is not all he appears to be. Meek relies on a few literary devices – third-person flashback, a retrospective letter, an elaborate prison camp narrative – to distill the lies, leaving the reader with a heady brew to swallow.
The character you never quite get a handle on is Samarin, which is odd as he is central to the book. What we learn about him, we do so through the eyes of others. Manipulator, swindler, cannibal, metaphor: “I am a manifestation. Of the present anger and the future love.” While the sect of castrates seek paradise through self-mutilation, Samarin seeks paradise for others by committing violence onto others. “I’m here on earth to destroy everything which doesn’t resemble paradise. There are others like me. Understand.”
“This was what civil war must always look like, the untended fields, uncropped grass and weeds hiding old furrows, lumps in the distance..neglect rather than wounds; a country gone bald, wrinkled, lame and unwashed.” The horror of watching extremism extinguish common sense, where no doctrine offers any hope.
The People’s Act of Love is a masterpiece of deception, and of writing. The intricacies of Meek’s language lingers over the page and will resonate with the reader for a time to come – who will forget the scenes where horses cascade over a railway bridge, or the power and eloquence of Balashov on horseback, saber in hand?
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek