Goya’s famous war etchings, los disastres de la Guerra, fascinate so many because they combine both the visceral horrors of war – dismembered bodies splayed on tree stumps, officers strangling men by tying their necks to trees and then pulling their legs – while involving the viewer in these acts by the very fact that these etchings are viewing aesthetic objects. We’re the soldiers as much as the sufferers and these wars are fought in our name. It was a difficult balance for Goya to pull off, as he had to both show us the horrors that brazenly occurred, while maintaining an air of objectivity: these works had to be both reportage and art, and thus could not partake in a journalist’s easy sensationalism. Many, of course, would argue that they do exactly that, but I would think that any serious examination of these etchings would make that position untenable. One notices, for example, soldiers rushing the hill upon which the dismembered body stands (what are they doing? On whose side are they?) or the fact that the man being 'manually’ hanged is having his shoulder pushed by another officer’s boot. It is in the unblinking, often obtuse, fidelity, and the resultant ambiguity, that the real achievement of these etchings lies.
The same might be said of The People’s Act of Love. James Meek covers cannibalism, civil war, and religious castration, and it is the tone of this work, its questioning seriousness, that allows Meek access to themes that would overwhelm lesser novelists. The title might be seen as the first example of the tone Meek takes. What does it really mean? That this novel is set in Russia, immediately after the revolution gives us a fair idea of whom 'the people’ are. But what is their 'act of love’? The revolution? That’s in no way certain and, really, the title as a whole is open to a whole variety of other interpretations. It would seem, ultimately, to be somewhat-but-not-quite ironic, and it is through that in-between zone that Meek negotiates his almost-gothic themes. This sort of tone is not a new one, and Meek pays subtle tributes to one of its masters in the opening sentence of the book: “When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl’s satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name”. This recalls, of course, the famous opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…”) and, more generally, gestures to that feeling of unease, of vague disquiet, that is brought about with the combination of the quotidian and the shocking. Marquez claimed to have got his style from Kafka, and the even more famous opening of The Metamorphosis bears this out (“When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect”). It goes without saying that Meek doesn’t reach these heights, but this novel is none the less an impressive, deeply engaging achievement.
The novel concerns the arrival of the aforementioned Samarin to a town populated by a sect of religious fanatics led by the morally conflicted Balashov, and watched over by a legion of Czech soldiers, left over from World War One and stranded by the continuing Russian civil war. Samarin has escaped from Russia’s northernmost prison and his arrival coincides with the murder of a local shaman, found with the word 'liar’ scrawled across his forehead. A local war widow, Anna Petrovna, an outsider in the community, is immediately attracted to Samarin, because, apparently, no unattached woman in a novel can resist the charms of a dangerous man, imprisoned for his beliefs. While the community attempts to determine the veracity of Samarin’s fantastic tale of escape, the Communists bear down on the disturbed hamlet. That this novel is full of stories, recollections, and fabrications is hardly surprising, but Meek’s judicious pacing means the reader is forever confronted with the grim present, even if every character seems to have a faulty view of it.
It is difficult to talk about this book without giving away Meek’s carefully calibrated twists, but the story is, to a large extent, concerned with limits. Where is the line to be drawn between dedication and madness, necessity and savagery? Samarin, Balashov and the cannibal all display a kind of fidelity to their cause, to what they see as their act of love, but they also skirt dangerously close to diaster and failure, but the reasons for this failure are seen differently from their eyes, not as a crazy commitment, but rather as a lapse in dedication. To them, a compassionate act may be the very undoing of their act of love, their moment of weakness would be seen by most to be their saving grace. The novel doesn’t really unravel these questions, but the fact that they have to be asked demonstrates that the general order through which these characters move is itself unravelling, and at times the only thing that seems to keep this novel from collapsing into what Nabokov (in an unfair reference to Dostoevsky) termed “gothic rodomontade” is the lucid calm of Meek’s prose. While the world built by these characters swiftly fractures Meek refuses to follow, and stays the course, letting his prose serve his themes. This is not to say he is a master stylist, just that he refuses, like Goya, to be drawn into the easy trap of the shocking, knowing full well that what he is describing is terrible enough, and he gets it right rather than paints it red.
Meek’s 'calmness’ can, however, slip into mannerism: “his limbs worked as he fell, as if he were trying at the same time to fly, to land feet first, and to brace himself for the moment of impact”. This is too much for the sentence to handle – so when the man falls his arms flay about a bit. We don’t need some reportage on how someone looks as they fall of a cliff, but if you must, tell us what he looks like not what is actually happening dressed up as a simile. But generally Meek stays the course, and as his soldiers, his castrates, his widow and his cannibal collide Samarin tells us that “what looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people’s act of love to its future self”, and provides a compelling case for this argument, but as the bodies mount, one is forced to remember that self love isn’t far from narcissism.
The People’s Act of Love is published by Canongate.