How far, how cold

by Paula Morris / 19 November, 2005

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).

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


NZ spied on Japan to help US - NSA document
71615 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z World

NZ spied on Japan to help US - NSA document

by Craig McCulloch

Leaked US documents reveal Kiwi spies gathered information about Japan at a whaling conference, then passed it onto the NSA ahead of a crucial vote.

Read more
Mustard with your mustelid? The future of ethical protein eating
70342 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Innovation

Mustard with your mustelid? The future of ethical …

by Margo White

If we want to feed the masses without wrecking the planet with more intensive agriculture, we might need to reframe our attitude to insects.

Read more
Thomas Oliver is in a soul frame of mind
71574 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Music

Thomas Oliver is in a soul frame of mind

by James Belfield

Last year’s Silver Scroll winner has a new album and is all set to go on tour.

Read more
Art of disruption: Fafswag's alternative look at the Pacific body
70635 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Arts

Art of disruption: Fafswag's alternative look at t…

by Anthony Byrt

A group of young artists are making sure their voices are heard in the discussion of decolonisation and the representation of Pacific bodies.

Read more
My life in clothes: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas on glamour and grunge
70622 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Style

My life in clothes: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas on glamo…

by Rose Hoare

Photographer Rebecca Zephyr Thomas describes how an anti-fashion phase has stuck with her through her life.

Read more
Phil Goff's half year looms with big fiscal hopes still alive
71557 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z Politics

Phil Goff's half year looms with big fiscal hopes …

by Todd Niall

Auckland's mayor Phil Goff is approaching his six-month mark in office saying he believes his two big budget ideas will eventually come through.

Read more
The forgotten tragedy of Kiwi heroes and the inspiration of The Guns of Navarone
71507 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z History

The forgotten tragedy of Kiwi heroes and the inspi…

by Charles Hamlin

A forgotten tragedy befell our first Special Forces in Churchill’s second bid for the Dardanelles.

Read more
Passchendaele centenary: New Zealand's blackest day in Flanders fields
71543 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z History

Passchendaele centenary: New Zealand's blackest da…

by Matthew Wright

Historian Matthew Wright describes our worst day, a century ago this year, when 845 Kiwis died trying to take a small Belgian village.

Read more