(This review first appeared in February of 2007)
Rating:The People’s Act of Love, by James Meek. Canongate (2005), 391 pages.
This is a very strange story with a particularly tangled and complicated plot. It takes place in a small village in Siberia during the time of the Russian Revolution. One would think that this piece of information would get the reader started fairly well on having a sense of time and place and the sorts of things that might be likely to happen next. But one would be wrong. I started this book and put it down and started it again and put it down again, at least three times. Everyone I have recommended it to describes the same situation, in which every attempt to read it ends up in a frustrated confusion or irritation that leads to its eventual abandonment…until it is picked up again and finally a point is reached at which the confusion becomes more interesting than confusing. It then moves on to become so strangely compelling that it is impossible to stop thinking about. I found myself calling all of my friends to say “You must read this book. It won’t make any sense and it will take you at least four attempts before you actually finish it. But you must stop whatever you’re doing and read it.”
Part of the problem is that the point of view shifts every chapter between completely incomprehensible groups of people. There is a group of marooned Czech soldiers who remain in the Siberian village even though the war is over, there is a mystical sect of Christian eunuchs, an escapee from a Russian prison camp, a shaman, a beautiful widowed woman who is not really a widow, and the Red Army making its way across the tundra to exact revenge upon the town for an act of brutality commited by the Czech soldiers. All of these lives are intertwined in ways too complicated to explain here. And everything takes place over just a few days.
Somehow this all works though to create a story about humanity—all that is beautiful and good and all that is horrifying. There is insanity and fanatacism, and love and compassion and murder and lust and sacrifice and honor, and even a bit of cannibalism.
Furthermore, Meeks manages to put this whole deranged plot together in a way that is not only heartbreakingly beautiful, but also funny. There are moments of absurdist humor here that completely surprised me, seeming to come out of nowhere, yet fitting perfectly into the story as if it couldn’t have been any other way.
I love this book.
The lieutenant gave him twenty strokes of the knout and stuck him in a cage for a few days till the snow was ankle deep. He lost a couple of toes. They turned black and the surgeon cut them off like a cook trimming a potato. Tolik said it was nothing terrible, he still had eight left, and the doctor gave him a swig of spirit before each one, so he asked him to take them all off, slowly, in return for 100 grammes of alcohol for each one and he’d settle for the pain to wash it down with, but the doctor said he hardly had enough spirit left for himself till the thaw came, and what would he do with eight healthy toes now that the ground was hard and he couldn’t bury them, he’d have to burn them. He was afraid they’d come back to haunt him, eight ghostly Christian toes pattering up to his mattress in the moonlight.