Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 26, 2006


A Novel

By James Meek

Canongate. 391 pp. $24

Think of your favorite Russian novel. Is it one of Dostoevsky's nightmarish depictions of existential torment? Or an evocation of love's cross-currents during a week in the country, something in the wistful mode of Turgenev or Chekhov? Perhaps you prefer the sweep of Doctor Zhivago , or the achingly human characters of Anna Karenina , or maybe the romantic fatedness of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time , or even the grim testimony of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ? No matter where you look in classic Russian fiction, you're almost sure to find spiritual anguish, gallows humor and fanaticism. There's nothing light-hearted or namby-pamby about the Slavic outlook on life. How could there be when the only fundamental question is the life or death of the soul, and how we must finally choose one or the other?

At times James Meek's The People's Act of Love will remind you of all the books I've just mentioned, but it is no less original and breathtaking for that. Meek is an English journalist who has spent considerable time in Russia, and he has clearly immersed himself in its culture, literature and history, especially that of the period just before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. More important, he possesses a talent for storytelling that fully justifies the echo of Gabriel García Márquez in his novel's first sentence:

"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." From here Meek goes on to evoke the douceur de vivre among the bourgeoisie in those final summer days before the Revolution, while also establishing the themes and twists that power his main story. Only later are you likely to understand the full implications of this description of the young hero, Samarin:

"He had a way of devoting attention absolutely to one woman, which not only pleased her during their conversation, but left her with the feeling afterwards that the time they'd spent -- no matter how brief, and usually it was brief -- was time offered to her from a precious store, time which could and should have been used by Samarin to continue a great task. The fact that nobody knew what this great task was only intensified the feeling. Besides, he dressed well, he stood to inherit a large estate, he was clever, and everything about him, his wit, his strength, even his looks -- he was tall, a little gaunt, with thick collar-length brown hair and eyes that shifted between serene remoteness and a sudden sharp focus -- suggested a man holding himself back from revealing his full self out of consideration for the less gifted around him."

During this first chapter, really a kind of overture, Samarin falls in love with the beautiful Katya, who has joined a revolutionary cell, and he tries to persuade her of the danger she is in. To no avail. Chapter Two opens nine years later, in 1919 Siberia, as a half-starved convict stumbles alone toward a railroad bridge. When he hears a train approaching, he tosses a seemingly precious package into the river below. Meek now describes, in slow motion, a harrowing, almost Homeric scene. As the train rumbles by, a soldier on board opens the door of a stock car and tries to catch the bridle of a horse that is rearing and flailing inside the wagon. The man is knocked from the train and falls 50 meters into the rocky shallows below.

"The horses, five of them, tumbled out of the wagon after the man. They were caught between the moving train and the low rusted guardrail of the bridge. One fell off the edge of the bridge immediately, landing on the edge of the river close to the fallen man with a crack on the water like a mine going off. The others fought for space on the bridge parapet. One stocky chestnut got dragged forward by a wagon, her harness caught by a projecting hook, and was hauled trotting and skipping and struggling against the mouth of the tunnel at the far end of the bridge, where her neck was broken.

"The three surviving horses tried to shuffle to safety between the train and the rail. There was space for them to move in single file, and barely that, but one of the three, a big skinny coal black horse, was trying to go in the opposite direction to the others. It reared up and its feet came down on the horse blocking its way, a bay. The black one got its balance back and reared again. The bay pushed forward and the black one ended up on top, its legs hung over the neck of the other.

"While the bay and the black were locked together, like punch drunk boxers, the train must have given the third horse, a white stallion, a shove, or it had gone mad, because it charged the guard rail and dived head first over the edge into the river. It was roped together with the bay and the bay was snatched out from underneath the black horse and went down after. Bay and white flew down, so unlike Pegasus, graceless in the air, their limbs frozen, and smacked thunderously into the skin of water over river pebbles."

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