My friend Vinton McCabe gave James Meek's latest novel a rave review, and because I trust Vinton's opinions and because I could not immediately lay my hands on a copy of The Heart Broke In, I lay my hands on his earlier novel, The People's Act of Love.
Meek, 50, born in London, grew up in Dundee. He's worked as a newspaper reporter since 1985 and lived in the former Soviet Union from 1991 to 1999. At the time this novel was published, he wrote for The Guardian and contributed to the London Review of Books and Granta. His reporting from Iraq and about Guantánamo Bay have, according to the flap copy, won a number of British and international rewards.
Here's how The People's Act of Love begins: "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. He didn't want to be 'Ivanovich' any more. The Ivan from whom the patronymic came, his father, had died when he was two, soon after his mother, and he had lived with his uncle ever since...."
We're in pre-revolutionary Russia, a time of revolutionaries and acts of terror and exile to Siberia. By Chapter 2, we're in revolutionary Siberia, where the Czechoslovak Legion has washed up after WWI. The Legion is led by a monomaniacal captain who dreams of establishing a Czech republic in the vast, empty landscape. Meanwhile, the Czech soldiers—essentially stateless because the Austrian-Hungarian Empire from which they started no longer exists—are living in town populated mainly by a sect of castrates. So Meek writes (sympathetically) about two forms of fanaticism: political and religious.
The main characters include Samarin, the revolutionary; Lieutenant Josef Mutz of the Czechoslovak Legion; Anna Petrovna Lutova, a middle-class photographer and widow; and Gleb Alexeyevich Balashov, a former hussar in the Imperial Russian Army, now a castrate. Minor characters include the Legion's captain, a native Siberian shaman and his albino apprentice, and Nekovar, a Czech soldier/mechanic. Nekovar, who has no luck with women, considers them mechanically: "What if the female erotic machinery was wound tight by the pressure of the man's muscles, so tight that her soft outer hide began to palpitate and heat up with the tension as it strained against the unreleased mechanism, causing the nipples to harden and lubrication to be released into the mouth of her lower valve, which the rigid male member would then slide easily into, triggering the release of her coiled sexual spring and causing her body and limbs to shake and move with violent energy...."
I found the book riveting. Meek shifts point of view seamlessly, and writes one vivid scene after another. He convinced me these people would have acted the way they do at this time in this place—and the place is exactly as he describes. The best I can do is quote Jim Harrison's blurb from the back jacket: "This is a novel of the first order, and perhaps that is an understatement. It quickly becomes unimaginable that this story didn't happen exactly as Meek tells it, which is the grand and steadfast illusion of art without which we fail to understand life." I now have to get my hands on the Heart Broke In.