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Questioning the human condition

  • Published at 12:25 pm November 5th, 2018
James Meek book

The book is about the conflict between ideals and realities

The People’s Act of Love by English novelist and journalist James Meek is a story set in Siberia at the end of the Russian Revolution. However, it isn’t any typical historical fiction. Concerning the Russian civil war of 1919, it chronicles a few days in the life of a woman and her three lovers, delves into a study of shamanism or spirit worship, and experiments with how far humans can go for love—all of it set in a village run by the Czechs where the Red army might just stage an attack any minute. 

The story begins when a division of the Czech legion occupies the village of Yazyk. Their leader, Captain Matula, in a somewhat sadistic and selfish desire to run his own military dictatorship, ignores instructions to go to their newly liberated country, even when there’s imminent threat of the Red Army. On the contrary there’s Lieutenant Mutz, a Jew (a fact his men keep bringing up), who is particularly keen to return his soldiers back home.

The original inhabitants of the village, we find, are a sect of Christian castrates, who have castrated themselves to remove their lustful urges and be closer to God. They do not drink alcohol or, eat meat, and generally live a very pious life. 

Anna Petrova, the supposed widow of a Hussar, and her son, inhabitants of the same village, however do not fit in with the castrates: they are not religious, and nobody really knows why they are there. Labelled as the village slut, Anna cares for worldly things, has a passion for photography, and loves men.

The tide of the story turns, when Samarin, a revolutionary claiming to have escaped from a labour camp, arrives at the village, leaving everyone disturbed. Soon, Samarin is taken prisoner and put on trial, where Anna Petrova believes him to be innocent and bails him out, taking him home to feed him and sleep with him. 

Anna Petrova’s relationship with the men in her life: her son, her husband who turns out to be the leader of the castrates, Mutz, and then Samarin, shows us the different forms of love and lust. She loves her son unconditionally, willing to give her own life to save him. However, her relationship with the other three is much more complicated. Even though her husband is castrated and no longer able to have a family, he still cares about her deeply. Samarin and Anna both use each other while Mutz and Anna  just enjoy each other’s company in times of loneliness. 

Meek shows both perverted ideology and humanity. He combines scenes of action and juicy revelation with quiet moments of tension and sly humour. The book is about the conflict between ideals and realities. It is about what it means to love, and what people are willing to do in the name of love. It is about human nature, showing how humans behave during times of conflict in general. The People’s Act of Love is truly one-of-a-kind and highly relevant in today’s world.

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