20070403

The People's Act of Love

James Meek - The People's Act of Love

5/5

It's 1919, in the middle of the Russian civil war. A bunch of Czechoslovak soldiers who have been marching since 1914 (hence have never even been to the free republic of Czechoslovakia) have taken over a small village in Siberia, chiefly populated by a weird Christian sect who have surgically removed their... um... instruments for sinning. But the Czechs want to go home, the Reds want to take the town, and in the middle of this, an escaped convict turns up with a tall tale of marching for hundreds of miles from a gulag way above the arctic circle, pursued by a man who he says wants to eat him. What follows is both a drama between the people who meet up in the little town - Russians, Siberians, communists, bourgeois, Czechs, men, women and a very lonely Jew - and a novel that aims for the Big Questions...

OK, this was indeed a fantastic book. Meek's intentions of writing a Great Russian Novel certainly shine through - it has scope, multiple-character plot, ethical quandaries and satire that wouldn't be unworthy of ol' Fyodor D himself - while still modern (and postmodern) enough to make it a novel for today's age.

But the similarities I keep finding aren't as much to writers as to movies; Col mentioned Ravenous, the praising of which I would like to join, but I also found myself thinking of two others:
- Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train - somewhat ironically an American movie made by a Russian, and in a sense the mirror image of Meek's book, tackling some of the same existential questions; that would be Samarin (not the Mohican) in Jon Voight's role.
- Werner Herzog's Aguirre - that's Klaus Kinski as Matula, leading his men on a hopeless quest, far beyond what is defensible or even sane. I kept expecting him to call himself the wrath of God, but of course the wrath of God - if indeed there is such a thing here - is much sneakier in Meek's world.

Yet for all its genre nods (it's something of a Wild East novel, isn't it? I'm sure we could find a role for a young Eastwood too) it's also something entirely its own. Meek's language is beautifully descriptive (I guess the fact that I keep seeing it as a movie is a testament to that) and the way he uses his realistic characters (of course, the Czechoslovak raids through Siberia is an actual historical event - and one I've always meant to read more about) to create a very personal drama out of the questions of what is right, what is possible, etc is... again, the unwieldy adjective "Dostoevskyan" springs to mind. Or is it Dostoevskyesque? The book is just self-conscious enough to pull it off, despite - or perhaps thanks to - lines like this:

SAMARIN: I don't serve. You know that. I'm a manifestation. Of the present anger and the future love.
How much can we be expected to sacrifice, and for what? How much can we demand that others sacrifice? The Czechoslovaks are, officially, fighting for a homeland they've never even set foot in. The Reds are fighting for a homeland they have barely even begun to imagine. Samarin has gone so far beyond idealism that he's passed into psychosis, and yet keeps going in the same direction. Balashov, the 19th century enlightened soldier, has stepped off the arena and the big industrial train comes down the track too fast to stop, dropping men and horses along the way as humanity eats itself to survive.

If this sounds disjointed, it's probably because I just finished the book half an hour ago and it's still got my head spinning a bit. I think it'll take me a while to digest it. I may revisit this. For now, it's five cold and distant stars over Siberia.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Skrubbaluttan said...

Du läser så massor med mycket. Jag blir alldeles .. niponerad.

5:47 em  
Blogger katafon said...

Det är bara att sluta glo på Gilmore Girls och börja åka kommunalt... ;-)

2:33 em  
Blogger Skrubbaluttan said...

hihi. Jag lyssnar ju böcker när jag kör bil ju. OM det nu räknas att man lyssnar towers runt runt runt...

5:09 em  

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