Bookforum | Dec/Jan 2006

When is it okay to eat human flesh? When is it appropriate to cut off your genitals? It says something about the semiapocalyptic tenor of our times that a book posing these questions feels somehow topical, but such is the power of The People's Act of Love, a novel of ideas that summons a moral universe of such exoticism and extremity that it almost, just nearly, outdoes real life. In patient, unadorned prose, author and journalist James Meek takes on the big questions of life in a fallen world, and as he does his tale achieves an odd, incandescent kind of relevance.

The novel is set in 1919, in the waning days of the Bolshevik Revolution, in the village of Yazyk, a desolate crossroads at the edge of the Siberian taiga where aboriginal wanderers, war criminals, and fanatics of various spiritual persuasions maintain a delicate balance of fear and mistrust. Among this citizenry, a few pillars assume starring roles. There is Gleb Balashov, member of a mystical sect whose devotional practices include whirling, hallucinatory trances, and other, more secretive rites; Anna, a photographer and woman of carnal appetites as well as the mother of Balashov's son; Mutz, Anna's Jewish lover; and finally Matula, a corrupt, coke-addled Czech commandant, whose murderous whims are the main law of the land. Rounding out the population is a battalion of Czech soldiers, stranded after their deployment in World War I.

Into this vaguely allegorical mix arrives convicted terrorist Samarin, recently escaped from the gulag. Upon capture by the Czech military officials, he reveals that he is being chased by the Mohican, an infamous criminal who engineered a break from the labor camp and who guided Samarin across the tundra with the intention, when food became scarce, of eating him. Having narrowly eluded his fate as the Mohican's "cow," Samarin warns that the whole village is endangered (the Mohican's bloodlust is apparently indiscriminate, and almost magical), setting in motion a sequence of events driven by paranoia and rife with opportunities for individual redemption.

The account of the convicts' journey across the tundra forms one of the novel's more memorable passages, a grueling trek in which Samarin's fear of death is eclipsed by a warped, philosophical affection for his predator. "But out there on the river," he recounts, "when we ran and the whole of nature was trying to kill us with cold, and even before, in the camp, where he was protecting me and fattening me up, the comfort I drew from thinking of him as a father was greater than the horror I felt at the thought of him as my butcher."

Samarin goes on to rhapsodize about the flesh-eating Mohican, associating him with the destructive idealism of humanity in general: "He is the will of the people. He's the hundred thousand curses they utter every day against their enslavement. To hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary men would be strange, like putting wolves on trial for killing elk, or trying to shoot the wind. . . . What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people's act of love to its future self."

Samarin's narrative is only one of the vivid, morally outrageous backstories that form the novel's foundation. Equally bizarre is the story of the pure, pious Balashov, once a proud member of the hussars, whose illusions of military grandeur are shattered when his entire regiment is mowed down by Austrian machine guns in its first charge into battle. Balashov wanders from the battlefield a ruined man and falls directly into the arms of a religious sect whose price of admission is the "Keys of Hell," or the genitals, which they hold responsible for all human urges toward mischief. Balashov castrates himself, becoming a self-proclaimed "angel," and moves to Yazyk, where he and his fellow castrates live out a model communitarian existence. To complicate matters, his wife, Anna, moves after him, with their child, a constant, degrading reminder of his sacrifice.

As the novel rolls on, the town's fragile network of manias is torn apart. A drunken shaman is murdered, and the Red Army approaches, leading to a kind of spiritual melodrama of confession and revenge. Roles reverse, alliances crack, and identities are unmasked, and throughout, weighty moral questions are repeatedly turned over, answered differently by each searching character. Is murder ever pardonable? Is self-mutilation a viable path to heaven? Is war excusable if it paves the way for a future, utopian kingdom?

By Meek's formulation, morality never provides a clear choice between good and evil, but rather only between different styles of evil: the maniacal, unmoored evil of Matula, who smashes the skulls of sables at the breakfast table, versus the inner void of the Mohican, for whom murder is an icy, calculated act of survival and destiny; the lust of Anna, who endangers her child in order to enjoy a night's sexual gratification, versus the self-mutilation of Balashov, whose gelding not only ends his ability to love physically but cuts off his access to spiritual agape as well. At one point, Mutz, bureaucratic outsider to all, finds himself walking down the road, "stupefied by the variety of menace and idiotism he had met since yesterday," a singularly sane observation in an otherwise pathological milieu.

While there is no clear correlative between Meek's fictive world and the world of our own historical era—the madman Matula is not Saddam Hussein, the terrorist Samarin is not George Bush, or vice versa—the author's recent journalistic reportage from Iraq and on the abuses of Guantánamo Bay suggests that perhaps his literary creation has some roots in our current troubles. To his great credit, though, Meek has utterly transfigured whatever sources of inspiration he's drawn from, and placed them confidently in the realm of imagination. In the tradition of such authors as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, and Greene, if not always with their Olympian command, Meek has given us a book of dark, tantalizing moral significance. Sadly, whatever answers it offers are reserved for the characters in its pages alone.

Jon Raymond's novel, The Half-Life, was published last year by Bloomsbury.