The People’s Act of Love by James Meek is one of those books that I have been carting about, unread for years. Well, those years were wasted years, because it is brilliant. Although, it has to be said that it is not exactly gentle. It is a story about cannibalism, terrorism, castration, starvation, mutilation and general brutality. It abounds with ice, blood, isolation and fear. Its people are people who, in their various ways, are not fully human. When their humanity does show, it is all the more marvellous for it.
The stage is a town deep in Siberia in 1919, under shaky military rule. The temporary governors are regiment of Czechs longing for home but knowing that it is far away and will probably never come. They sit at the end of the Trans-Siberia railway, like ducks, waiting for their Bolshevik attackers. The town subject to their rule is home to a collective of castrates, Christians of a sort who worship sexlessness and separateness.
I can’t decide whether The People’s Act of Love works best as a novel of groups or a novel of individuals, but I think that is partly the point, because this is a book about the tension between collective and individual values. On the one hand, the entrapment of the Czechs is perfectly rendered. On the other hand, the portrait of its leader, Matula, who is a vicious petty-tyrant trapped at the head of a paper army in a town of castrates, held in place by a circle of muscle and weakness, is one of the best elements of the novel. He is every inch as rotten as any other character.
There is an end of the world feeling about The People’s Act of Love. By that, I don’t mean that it is apocalyptic. I did not feel that there was a sense that this world was heading for disaster; but rather that when disaster happened, nobody would know or care apart from those present and that were it not for the hidden eye of the novelist, history would never know. That makes it sound more depressing than it is. There is a touching love story here, between the Jewish Czech army officer, Mutz, the gentle castrate Balashov and widowed mother, Anna, whose destructive, voracious promiscuity makes her the subject of unwarranted disgust in this tiny town. They are outsiders all. What is it which holds all of these people together? Is it love, and if it is, is their love different to other people’s loves? Is there a difference between loving a person and loving an idea?
All these questions; and I haven’t even got on to the cannibal yet. The presence of a man who kills and feeds on man and is of super human strength and stamina somewhere in or around the town is the dramatic centre point of this novel. It is terrifying, not in a cheap way, but in a precise, chilling savage way. It holds so much in its focus, and asks so many questions, without becoming cluttered. It is a perfect horror. Hang on to your hats, and trust your instincts say I!
Plenty of ink has been spilt about this book, and I have enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Irvine Welsh, as well as blog posts by Booklit, Keep the Wisdom and Gibberish.