James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love

There is a sense in which the history of the last century is the history of, well, History. Never before has History been so self-conscious, so active a presence on its own stage. As Camus argues in The Rebel, when God died it was History who stood up to take his place, it was the historical imperative that we made our master, it was in History’s name that thousands were sacrificed. The idea that present suffering could be justified in the name of the future persisted – only the location of that future shifted from some mythic Otherworld to an equally mythic Future. This is not an idea that has left us: when supporters of the war in Iraq speak of the ‘verdict of history’ it is this deified version of history that they are speaking of.

This is the idea that James Meek’s superb novel The People’s Act of Love sets out to explore. At the heart of the novel is the contradiction between acts done for other people and acts done for the People, the interests of Man vs. the interests of men. Meek’s point seems to be that at the heart of every revolution is this fundamentally self-destructive urge, this almost cannibalistic urge to be cleansed through one’s own destruction. “How couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes?”, Nietzsche writes. But can we justify arson on those grounds? Is crime justified if it is committed with good intentions – for love, perhaps, or out of nobility, or revolutionary zeal? How does ideology come to overwhelm common sense, common decency? What does it mean that rules and beliefs can almost take our humanity away from us? Is it just that we are malleable? Or is there, hidden deep within us, this urge to destroy what we most cherish, consume what we would most want to keep?

Meek’s answer in the book is an optimistic one. “Busy remaking the world, man forgot to remake himself” is the quotation the book opens with. And that, in a nutshell, is Meeks’ point – that you can’t take the human out of people, that our attempts at renouncing the self and becoming purely a part of the People will always fail, because we are not strong enough for so total a surrender. And that this is a good thing, because without it life would become unlivable and we would all end up destroying each other. Old affections will always have a hold on us, old loyalties will always reassert themselves, old habits of thought and action will never quite die. The killer will never completely abandon compassion, the coward will find his courage again. And that is what will save us, that is why the ending will be a happy ending, whatever price may be paid on the way.

If all this makes the book sound distressingly serious – I assure you it’s not. People’s Act of Love is a gut-spilling, heart-pounding romp of a novel, that reads like a cross between Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky and Alistair MacLean. The book I was most reminded of, reading it, was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian [1]. Like McCarthy, Meek has a taste for the macabre: blood is an almost constant presence in the book and descriptions of wounds are delivered with relish (“Strnad took so many bullets in the neck that his head popped back like the stopper on a beer bottle”; “another horseman leaned over and with the sharp tip of the sabre drew a line from the man’s forehead to his waist, the line thickened in a second and he fell down with the two sides of the line not together”; “The human talon closed around the food and snatched, severing an artery in the arm as it pulled back through the jagged hole in the window”). And in its clever use of suspense, its unflagging and hot-blooded action, in the very roughness of the Siberian life that it portrays The People’s Act of Love is a superb adventure story. Some of Meek’s characters seem stereotypical, but the interaction between them is brought about with great imagination and sensitivity, and there’s a constant sense of revolution being in the air, of dramatic violent changes taking place all around.

What makes The People’s Act of Love an exceptional novel is the way Meek connects and merges these two very different books – the Siberian crime / action thriller and the novel of ideas. It’s not just that the two are juxtaposed. It’s that the two are necessary to each other, that in many ways they mirror each other, reinforce each other. The desperation of the people of the town of Yazyk, who struggle to survive even as their world is torn asunder by the competing claims of religion and state and land and ideology and History and plain old human decency, becomes a microcosm for the forces tearing Russia apart at the inception of the Soviet Union. Here again, in the end, it is personalities that will matter, it is the interpersonal dynamics between the characters that will save the day, not the labels they give to themselves.

Bottomline: Reading The People’s Act of Love is a bit like riding a wild stallion. All the time you’re actually on the ride, you’re just holding on breathlessly, letting the story carry your forward at breakneck speed (and enjoying every minute of it). It’s only when you’ve got off the horse and stop to think do you realise how amazing the view has been all through, how incredible the trail that has led you, twisting and turning, to this point. Either way, it’s an experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry.

Second thoughts: “Some of Meek’s characters seem stereotypical”, I said. I take that back. It’s not so much that they’re stereotypes as that they’re archetypes – ideas and ideologies masquerading as human beings. It’s a tribute to Meek’s talent that he makes these characters engaging at all, but eventually their role as ciphers shows through.

[1] And that, coming from me, is high praise.