Sunday, December 10, 2006

The People's Act of Love

Well, there is a love story in it, but it seems rather peripheral - though perhaps, given that almost the only female character in this book by James Meek is the connection between a number of men, it is more of a central part that one thinks?

Someone highly recommended this book to me. I hate historical novels, especially if written by contemporary writers, so my heart sank when I saw that it was set in 1919. Even worse, it is set in darkest Russia (actually Siberia) in 1919, largely in a community of castrates (there really was a religious sect that believed that by castrating the men they would become angels). The muddle of the Russian revolution is ongoing, as always levels of brutality are extremely high, even including cannibalism. If you are looking for a thing of beauty, don't read this book. Mind you, it's written by a guy who grew up in Dundee (Scotland). Go figure.

Of course it's not just set in darkest Siberia in 1919, but in the winter of 1919, so total misery abounds. It also involves a Czechoslovakian legion stranded in this community, occupying it, after fighting for ...who knows ...(there really was such a legion). They long to get back to their own country which has existed for about 5 minutes. The head of the Czech legion, a cocaine user aged 24 (cocaine, in Siberia, in 1919??) runs the village and the occupation, and is suitably rational in his decisions. All hell breaks loose when almost simultaneously a murderous cannibal appears in the village and 'the Reds' appear from the other direction, wanting to extinguish the Czechs, and expropriating the villagers.

The woman in the story is not the most sympathetic character; she uses men and constantly changes her dizzy mind about what she wants to do and who she wants to be with. It is not entirely clear what she, as a single woman, actually lives from.

For all the gruesomeness the book is beautifully written; for example, it contains a lovely passage describing the composition of the Czech unit's uniforms after 5 years of being in the war. It won a couple of prizes, and was on the Booker longlist.

Apparently James Meek lived in Russia as the Guardian's reporter from 1991 - 1999, which would have given him plenty of scope to research. I hope things have changed in the Russian countryside.