Author James Meek has a new book coming out in May (more on that one in a future post). Everything that I’ve read about the upcoming book mentions that Meek’s first novel, The People’s Act of Love, is a masterpiece. Somehow, I missed it when it first came out. I decided it would be prudent to maybe begin my reading of Meek’s work with the masterpiece. I’m glad that I did. I love everything about this book.
The novel takes place in a small Siberian town during the Russian Revolution. A garrison of Czech soldiers has commandeered enough of the town’s buildings and supplies to remain indefinitely. When the soldiers left their homes five years earlier, they were part of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. Their homes are now in a new country that they’ve never been a part of, and the country that they’ve been fighting in and against is changing political fortunes almost daily. Isolated as they are, they’re not sure who they’re supposed to be fighting for, which way the Russian political winds are blowing, and if and when they might be able to return home. The Czech commander, giving a pep talk tyo his troops, says:
Comrades. Friends. We have fought together for five years. We have fought for the Emperor of the Austrians against the Emperor of the Russians. We have fought for the Emperor of the Russians against the Emperor of the Austrians. We have fought for the White Terror of the monarchists against the Red Terror of the Bolsheviks. We have fought with Social Revolutionaries and Cossacks against Cossacks and Social Revolutionaries. I can say to you, with pride, that not once have we compromised our ideals.
The townspeople coexist with their Czech occupiers in a quiet subservience. The natives have a deep and dark secret that they are trying to hide from the world at large. If you tried for a million years, you would never guess their secret. I promise. The fascinating part is that the basic scenario – trapped Czech soldiers, town with a crazy secret – are based on actual events.
This is a fantastic novel – and I’m not just saying that because I like virtually all books either written by Russians or set in Russia. The themes that Meek tackles are certainly relevant to our time: moral ambiguity vs moral certainty, extremism, citizenship vs identity, the fog of war. James Meek is a journalist for The Guardian. He was stationed in Russia for several years, which I’d assume is where he found the seeds of this book. His journalist’s eye for detail and his beautiful writing style are a winning combination. Do yourself a favor and spend some time in this wonderful book.