Milan/zzz's Reviews > The People's Act of Love

The People's Act of Love by James Meek
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Jun 06, 08

bookshelves: historical-fiction

WOW what a strange novel this is! This beautiful piece of historical fiction written in the best spirit of Russian classics is set in the coldest, isolated part of Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Place where common rules can’t be applied or can easily be neglected and therefore perfect (whatever that means) place to test your humane values and scruples.

I’ve read somewhere one comment about the books as if ”Anna Karenina meets Silence of the Lambs” and that’s pretty much true with the difference that somehow you feel oddly sympathetic with Hannibal Lecter probably because he is breathtakingly convincing (and therefore much scary). His mission is so pure that you’re finding yourself how you almost ignoring the methods; through his words it sounds perfectly right:

“…he’s a man so dedicated to the happiness of the future world that he sets himself to destroy all the corrupt and cruel functionaries he can; till he’s destroyed himself. He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction; to hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary man would be strange, like putting wolves on a trial for killing an elk, or trying to shoot the wind.”

And indeed you simply can’t apply the same standard not only to that specific character but (as I said above) to the whole place where the novel is set in. Because just imagine the question like this: “under what circumstances is eating another human being justifiable?” Is there an answer on that question at all? OK maybe if you think now about that horrible true story about plane crash in South American Andes where survivors had to eat pieces of their friends who didn’t survive the crash to stay alive I should reformulate question: “under what circumstances is killing and then eating another human being justifiable?”.
Other question that emerges is “How far are you ready to go in dedication yourself to the God?” and I assure you, if I tell you the answer you wouldn’t believe!

So, the story is set in the middle of Siberia in the village of Yazyk and the characters is one the most impossible group of people: marooned legion of Czechoslovak troops; the members of the strangest Christian sect I’ve ever heard about; a shaman with spiritual “third” eye on his forehead; a strange widow and her son; an escapee from an Arctic gulag and of course the man who “is not destroyer but destruction itself”.

Story about first two groups (Czechs and Christian sect “skoptsy”) is based on historical facts. The year is 1919 and maybe it would be nice to explain historical background of the story (but I should stress that novel is NOT about this):

A turning point in the history of the Russian civil war was the rebellion of the Czech troops, surely one of its most curious episodes. The Habsburg monarchy, Russia’s enemy in the First World War, was like imperial Russia, a multinational empire. The large Slav minority within it felt oppressed, and at the time of the war showed little loyalty to the Habsburgs. A large number of Czech soldiers, for example, easily allowed themselves to be captured by the Russians. The tsarist government hesitated to play the nationality card. They refused to form an army from these prisoners of war and allow them to fight on their side. That situation changed in 1917: Czechs formed an independent corps and fight the Germans. The Czechs were enthusiastic soldiers, for they rightly believed that only the defeat of the central powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, would allow them to form an independent state. When the Russian army fell apart, this tiny force alone wanted to continue fighting, but the Brest-Litovsk treaty made it impossible for them to continue their struggle. After long negotiations with the Soviet government, it was decided to allow them to travel to the Western front through Siberia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Czechs, however, never reached their destination, because while traveling through Siberia they started to fight the Bolsheviks.

And this is where/when the novel is set: In one Siberian village full of Czech soldiers on their way to Pacific but trapped by the Bolsheviks and their crazy “cheef”.

This novel is extremely thought provoking with such incredible twists. Truth, the start is little confusing and slow with introduction to the characters; it’s kind of little stories about them which will be joined in one story and then the book becomes un-put-down-able. Honestly I can’t remember when was the last time I was so surprised with how the story goes in the book. It’s amazingly unpredictable with turns that leave you speechless. And in the end everything is about love, about many kinds of love and sometimes in quite weird way.

[it’s very hard to write about the novel and avoid the spoilers and I’m aiming to avoid them. I know I would be furious if I have found something that could spoil this great reading adventure. So here is little advice: Do not read comments on Amazon, they are full of spoilers (I’ve read them after I finished with the book)]

This book is definitively not for everyone but it was very enjoyable read for me. It’s not an easy read and (as one of mine BXing friend said) “nor one that is easily forgettable”.
Probably you’ll get the best image of what can you expect from this novel, from this quote:

“Did you hear the story about the monk who arrived in a mall town in Poland one time, rang the bell in the marketplace, gathered all citizens and told them that he had come to warn them of a terrible plague which would soon afflict them? Somebody asked him who was carrying the plague. The monk said: I am”
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