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The People's Act of Love: A Novel (original 2005; edition 2006)

by James Meek

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1,025388,270 (3.78)35
Member:richardderus
Title:The People's Act of Love: A Novel
Authors:James Meek
Info:Canongate U.S. (2006), Paperback, 391 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
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The People's Act of Love by James Meek (2005)

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This is a book about idealism. The characters tend to suffer from either a surfeit or a lack of the stuff. The prose style is somewhat over-wrought. It is a style that lends itself more to South America than Siberia. Meeks has a habit of keeping some scenes surreal by holding back a piece of information until a later moment. I found the device somewhat tiring after a while. But once things coalesce the story becomes powerful and moving. ( )
1 vote freelancer_frank | Dec 7, 2012 |
An unusual though slightly unsatisfying novel set during the Russian Civil War among the soldiers of the Czech Legion fighting the Bolsheviks. This isn't really a political/historical novel in the usual sense , though. It's more about the relationship between a number of complex and rather difficult to define characters, the enigmatic nihilist Samarin, the unusual religious zealot Balashov, the tough and cynical Anna and the somewhat more sympathetic Czech Jew Mutz. I found parts of it rather opaque and horrible, and in some ways it could have taken place against the background of any 20th century war. The author's writing style is quite spare and evokes an authentic Russian writing style, a considerable achievement for a non-Russian author. 4/5 ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Jul 7, 2012 |
The People's Act of Love is not a simple tale. It is a curious and fascinating story of people existing and surviving on the edge: the edge of order; the edge of sanity; and the edge of reason. It is in some ways a war story, but not your typical war story. This becomes clear from the very first pages. The cast of characters have purposefully been placed on the periphery of grand events and the periphery of civilisation and culture.

A lot of ground is covered in just 391 pages. The People's Act of Love explores its very human themes of belief, loyalty, betrayal, longing-ness, sacrifice, mission and love through the obscure prisms of bizarre Christian sects, revolution and civil war, mad charismatic would-be despots, tribal shamans, war widows, criminals and displaced Czech soldiers who have somehow missed the end of World War I. And all of this plays out amid the desolation of a wintry Siberia in 1919 and an encroaching Bolshevik victory over the Whites. James Meek has written a compelling novel, and a courageous one.

The novel is courageous in the sense that Meek delves into the motivations and consciousnesses of at least two characters whose manner of being is not something accessible to average human experience. Despite this, Meek successfully rents the veils occluding these human oddities. The result is persuasive and forceful, and the essence of these two characters – a religious mystic and a driven political fugitive – ring true within the confines of the story. The novel is courageous too in the sense that Meek willingly dives headfirst into a novelistic genre whose native canon is rich and deep – the 'Great Russian Novel'. This is a risk, for while his novel's setting is in some ways unique and Meek brings an impressive amount of research to bear, he does not have the usual necessary qualification: that is, to actually be a Russian, and, given his story's setting, a Russian who has either lived through revolution, war or political incarceration. But the risk pays off because Meek succeeds in delivering a tale with a psychological and intellectual resonance that lasts beyond the closing of its pages, and he does so without heavy riffing on the well-thumbed material of the Russian masters. Meek defiantly brings his own voice and his own approach.

This is not to imply the novel says what it says in an entirely new way, and without recourse to any recognisable motifs whatsoever. If it did avoid all relevants tropes and themes then the story wouldn't work. But it does work because of the way Meek skillfully inserts his unique vision into an established literary landscape. It _is_ a war story, and it is set in a recognisable Russian milieu. Within its pages sit many of the familiar themes found in the best novels about people persisting through times of war and occupation, and the book could not do its job if they weren't – this is what we have come to read! – but they are applied to startling effect.

That said, the story is not without its weaknesses. Particularly, there is an element to its denouement which disappointed me: One of the central characters was to make an important decision; it was tragically though not life-threateningly obvious what it would be, yet for this character to do so would have been understandable and not inconsistent with her personality. Instead, Meek inexplicably introduces an external element to account for a change of mind. This insertion is a glaringly gratuitous flourish which damages the momentum of the story at this point and debases the character in question. It may be that Meek wants readers to lower our estimation of and reduce our sympathy for this character, but it is difficult to see to what end. To me it is sabotage. Especially when instead the character could have exited with her integrity and honour somewhat intact. But while that particular intervention was clumsy and amateurish, it is also thankfully exclusive.

None of the story's flaws are glaring or sufficient enough to reduce Meek's achievement, including the anomaly discussed above. How did he manage this? Well, partly because The People's Act of Love is not a 'Great Russian Novel' and Meek didn't set out to write one. The book he created is something related to that venerable genus, but perverted and strange, and beautiful because of this. It is not a story about Russia or Russian history nor Russian peoples. It is a story about people, and the things we do for or in spite of others, and for or in spite of ourselves. Under Meek's expert hand the convolutions of his plot are a kind of laboratory within which ideas and relationships are arranged, then plucked and strummed, and stretched.

Meek does not give us a fictionalised history of the Russian civil war. Instead, the civil war remains mostly in the background as a felt, pervasive, smothering force. Chiefly, The People's Act of Love is about relationships: relationships between individuals; between people and states; between soldiers and commanders; between men and women; between men and women and God; between existential individuality and the impersonal inexorable weight of history; and between conscience and ideology, be it religious or political.

Not only is Meek's prose easy to read, but it is also capable of displaying a remarkable clarity – moments of pure insight – without burdening the text or appearing portentous. At numerous times while reading I had to stop and marvel at ideas, feelings or images that were so exquisitely captured that I needed to dwell on the words or turn the idea over in my mind a few times. The People's Act of Love is not a difficult read but it is a rewarding one, if you want it to be. Nothing is forced upon the reader and the level of immersion is purely voluntary.

As for the evocative title, the linchpin character who is the catalyst of the events that unfold in the town of Yazyk at one point discusses a theoretical man he terms ‘destruction’: "He is the will of the people. He's the hundred thousand curses they utter every day against their enslavement. To hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary men would be strange, like putting wolves on trial for killing elk, or trying to shoot the wind... What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people's act of love to its future itself. He's the storm the people summoned, against which not all good people find shelter in time.” When history is a force and not an accumulation of individual actions, or at least people willingly accept it as such, there is no limit to the number of individuals who can be treated this way.

Indeed, it is the key question of 20th century history – can an act of evil to a single person ever legitimately be the people's act of love to its future itself? This is the ultimate utilitarian argument because it goes beyond traditional humanistic utilitarianism by abandoning humanism altogether – it is utilitarianism of the starkest sort, wedded to the triumph of an idea over humanity. It is the ultimate expression of the power of belief, whether it be self-belief or belief in a dogma or political ideology. In this kind of mental space there is no room for doubt or opposition.

The experience of reading The People's Act of Love will be further enhanced for those familiar with the dissolution of the multi-ethnic empires which accompanied the First World War and the political struggles surrounding the civil war which accompanied the Russian Revolution. And unless you are particularly well-versed, you will probably learn something about the obscure episodes and groups that contextualise this story – drawn from fact, though not necessarily as portrayed here – that barely usually even rate as footnotes in the conventional histories. For those without this background the story no doubt will seem steeped at times in remarkable mysteries, but this will in no way detract from its enjoyment, and may even enhance it.

The People's Act of Love is a challenging and original exposition of humanity under duress. This novel does what all good novels does – it explores the human condition in such a way that once finished, you feel you have gained a sliver more insight into what it is to be a moral being, and may even have enriched your inner life through the consideration of complex, unnameable things. ( )
3 vote Emrayfo | Sep 18, 2011 |
Bit of a strange one, but no worse for it. Siberia during the fighting between whites and reds sees a legion from the newly independent Czechoslovakia, native Siberians, a strange castrati sect and an escaped convict. An area I know very little about, and as I am living in Prague, it was interesting to read about the C. legion, which I didn't know existed. ( )
  soffitta1 | Jan 3, 2011 |
This was a tough read, but worth it. It deals with subject matter rarely encountered in fiction, and there is definitely more going on than is suggested by the blurb on the back cover. ( )
1 vote jayne_charles | Sep 7, 2010 |
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Busy remaking the world, man forgot to remake himself.
Andrei Platonov, Nursery Of The New Man
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When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl's satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name.
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Siberia, 1919. In the outer reaches of a country recently torn apart by civil war live a small Christian sect and, stationed nearby, a regiment of Czech soldiers. Into this isolated community trudges Samarin, an escapee from Russia's northernmost prison.… (more)

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