James Meek’s early fiction is alert, acrid and funny, and only slightly too insistent on its own quirkiness – as if it were hoping reviewers would call it surreal (they did) and confident that this would be a good thing. These qualities make for many sudden pleasures of reading, but I could find nothing in the two novels and the two collections of stories – McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), Drivetime (1995), Last Orders (1992), The Museum of Doubt (2000) – that prepared me for the eloquent sobriety of the new book, The People’s Act of Love, and its entirely different sense of what is strange.
The exception, perhaps, is a story in Last Orders called ‘Recruitment in Troubled Times’, set in an alternative world where the Federated Commonwealth of Scotland, France and Canada includes a subordinated England and where the English are doggedly fighting for their independence. The popular Scottish view of the English is that they are ‘not exactly civilised’. ‘They drink too much, they’re violent, they’re mean and they can’t cook. Always ready to take our handouts. If they knew what was good for them they’d be glad to be in the Commonwealth.’ The story begins with a pair of apparently offhand sentences: ‘The torturer had written to me at the office, suggesting a place and a time for our meeting. I knew the bar well.’ The speaker is a relatively senior civil servant whose job is to interview a torturer who in turn will assist with the interrogation of an English terrorist. Or so he thinks. He is in fact being interviewed for the torturer’s job himself, which he takes, in part because he believes someone has to do it, in part because he will be killed if he doesn’t. ‘That was how I became the Bureau’s torturer,’ he says. ‘I try to think of myself as the impersonal administrator of a necessary, useful, alerting pain, but this is not possible.’ This is not possible. Our man is not a version of Eichmann, just carrying out orders, but only – here the grim comedy offers a weird, understated tribute to humanity – someone who would like to be Eichmann but can’t. It’s true the tribute is soon revoked when our man still manages to do his version of Eichmann’s job. It’s only the justification he can’t manage.
Late in The People’s Act of Love, two Czech soldiers in Russia learn the details of a systematic act of cannibalism and are ‘surprised and properly nauseated at the revelation’, yet within moments they are ‘used to it already’. ‘It was like a story in the yellow press,’ the narrator says, ‘always lit up as something that had never happened before,’ which paradoxically means it must be a recurring event, ‘because the novelties of this age of wonders came with the assurance that just as such things had never happened before, they were certain to happen again.’ This is the world of Kafka and Primo Levi, where the impossible keeps happening without damaging the idea of its impossibility. ‘The implausibility of their actions,’ Adorno astutely says of the National Socialists, ‘made it easy to disbelieve what nobody . . . wanted to believe.’ This is also the link between Meek’s story about the torturer and his new novel. When the impossible keeps happening it doesn’t become normal, but you do have to adopt, if you can, the tone of normality: ‘I knew the bar well.’
The modern master of this tone is Gabriel García Márquez, although he says he got it from Kafka, and The People’s Act of Love opens with a discreet tribute, an elegantly modified memory of the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude (‘Many years later, facing the firing squad . . .’): ‘When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was 12, 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.’ The mixture of cologne and dynamite is characteristic of this tone, as is the discreet hiding of the heart of the future story in a subordinate clause, along with the invasion of later political violence into the apparent pastoral of schooldays. The main clause, meanwhile, is just one illustration among many of Samarin’s character, the independence of his mind from patronymics as from almost everything else. Nine years later he finds a bomb in the satchel of a girl he likes and takes it from her (they have recited phrases from The Catechism of a Revolutionary as part of their playful courtship). She is too tough for him, though. She puts on a look of sexual interest to distract him, takes the bomb back and dashes off. Two weeks later she is arrested and sent to Siberia. The date is 1910, and Samarin is 21.
The main action of the novel, apart from a third-person flashback to pick up another main character, a long retrospective letter and an elaborate prison camp narrative, takes place nine years later still, in and around a Siberian village called Yazyk. Its location is said to be ‘between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk’, about a hundred miles north of the Trans-Siberian railway, ‘near the river Yenisey’. The machinery of the inserts is a little creaky, perhaps a deliberate throwback to the cavalier expository manner of Dostoevsky, although it does help that one of them, as it happens, is a pure fabrication within the fiction – a convenience to the character, therefore, and not a short cut for the author. But the action in Yazyk is plentiful, and the context is strange enough to leave no room for quirkiness in the narrative voice. The concentration of strangeness in the village is Meek’s doing, but he didn’t invent the community of castrates or the Czech legion stranded in Russia or the practice among escaping convicts of, as Meek puts it in his notes, ‘taking a naive companion with them for food’. I had to read this sentence several times before I realised what ‘naive’ meant in the context. The castrates are seeking paradise through mutilation, or rather believe themselves already to have found a sort of forecourt of paradise by cutting off and throwing away what they call the keys of hell. The Czech legion, at the start of the war sent to fight for the Austrians against the Russians, are now nominally fighting for the Social Revolutionaries against the Bolsheviks, but mainly are longing to go home. In the novel and in history a handful of them did, leaving Vladivostok (in history) in 1920. The planned (and then executed) cannibalism is central to the issues the novel wants to address, and is also caught up in the fabrication I have already mentioned. There is some question, in other words, of who has eaten whom and where. I’m not going to say more about this aspect of the book, since surprise and puzzlement are among its pleasures, and the mystery is subtle and frightening enough to be worth leaving to the reader.
The characters circling around each other in Yazyk include a hussar who has become a castrate, his wife and child who have followed him to Siberia, a pathologically cruel and capricious Czech captain, a thoughtful but perhaps too judicious Jewish Czech lieutenant, and a local shaman who is looking for and ultimately finds, after his death, a horse to ride into the other world. The Czechs have massacred a group of Russians and some of them are feeling deeply guilty about it. Into this community comes the enigmatic Samarin, a man who is mostly who he says he is but also several other persons as well. He tells the story of his perilous journey south from an Arctic prison camp. A Czech soldier is murdered, the Bolsheviks arrive, and there is a spectacular shootout at the end. Listed in this way, these people and these events seem to compose a hysterical opera composed in about equal parts black comedy and magic realism, as if Angela Carter, perhaps, had rewritten The Good Soldier Svejk, a work Meek mentions in his notes; and in the book the Jewish lieutenant, Mutz, has a similar thought.
It did not seem possible that a woman whose husband had castrated himself for God’s sake would tolerate a lover who had murdered and eaten a fellow convict. Mutz realised he was smiling. Those who commit the most extreme acts always laid themselves open not only to the most extreme punishments but also to the most extreme ridicule. The war was hardly over in Europe and already jokes about demobilised men whose balls had been blown to bits by bullets and shrapnel were flying round the northern hemisphere.
Mutz doesn’t smile for long, though, and goes on to think about the wives of these men, and wonders whether Anna Petrovna, the wife of the castrate, is not perhaps in a better position than they are. ‘Was it not possible that her husband’s self-mutilation had inoculated her, in some sense, to the terrors that would grasp the imaginations of others.’ And within a few short logical paces Mutz has decided that cannibalism is not so bad compared with, say (to cite as he does another gothic moment in the novel), the carving of letters on a dead man’s forehead. The key word, here as in the story about the torturer, is ‘possible’ (‘this is not’, ‘it did not seem’, ‘was it not’). In each case what is described is not a feature of the actual world, where we have learned that anything at all is possible, but the capacity of a mind to register or cross the boundaries of an imaginable or acceptable reality.
It doesn’t seem possible, to give the screw another turn, for a mind to live without some limitation of its idea of the possible: how would we tell chances from results, or threats from verdicts, to say nothing of jokes from terrors? Mutz’s smile belongs to a realm of sanity that is fortunately real enough, in certain protected times and places. It is from within this realm that we can express our sense of what’s strange, or impossible, and even be roughly right about such things. But there are other times and places and Meek is inviting us to think about one of them: a village in Siberia in 1919, in the midst of war and revolution, a meeting point of castrates and cannibals, where all bets about the possible are off. And then of course this invitation instantly unfolds into a different but related one: we are to think of other locations, in our minds or in the world, in private life or in public history, where the same principle applies, where the very idea of strangeness seems to belong to a comfortable country we have lost.
What I am calling the novel’s sobriety is a matter of clear diction and level tone, but this sobriety doesn’t exclude metaphors, and often relies on them. One character is said to have a ‘manner of using a chaste little flock of words for each wild lurch of his broken mind’. Another describes a frozen prison camp as situated ‘at the terminus of a journey from the sum of all our homes’; and we learn that the psychopathic Czech captain ‘cared little for the dead but hated to lose an officer. It shrank the empire of his mind.’ These are metaphors from the kingdom of sanity, you will notice – they know what’s possible and what’s not – and this kind of language is a good part of the reason that The People’s Act of Love sounds like a gothic opera when I describe it, but doesn’t at all feel like one when you read it. The other part of the reason is the unmusical urgency of the thematic core of the novel.
In London, Paris or New York, Lieutenant Mutz knows, the Russian Reds of 1919 are ‘an anarchic, destructive, turbulent menace which demanded to be controlled’. But to him in Yazyk the Reds are an end to chaos, ‘a new order, a new empire, coming to take its place among the old’. Could both views be right, or are there orders that are worse than chaos? And was the Soviet empire one of them? Mutz, and indeed any reader of this novel, has or will have a peculiarly intense appreciation of these questions because they will have been close enough to a sheer appetite for destruction, and they will have understood that the relation between castration and cannibalism is more than a doubling up of strangeness and horror. To put it far less subtly than the novel does, the members of the sect of castrates are seeking paradise for themselves by doing severe violence to themselves, while the cannibal, who is also a revolutionary, seeks paradise for others by doing violence to others. He, too, is not alone. He says: ‘I’m here on earth to destroy everything which doesn’t resemble paradise. There are others like me. Understand.’ To a child who asks him who he really is he replies, with a fine allegorical flourish that the child fails to appreciate, that he is Destruction. The child asks ‘Destruction of what?’ and gets the answer: ‘Of everything that stands in the way of the happiness of the people who will be born after I’m dead.’ Earlier, speaking more theoretically, as if about someone else, the same character says: ‘He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction, leaving those good people who remain to build a better world on the ruins. To say he’s the embodiment of the will of the people is feeble, a joke, as if they elected him. He is the will of the people.’ And, by the same token, if he needs to eat a human being in order to survive, this is ‘accidental damage. It’s without malice. What looks like an act of evil to a single person is the people’s act of love to its future self.’
The equation between the sect and the revolutionary is made by the latter, who is encouraged by the thought that the castrates are living in Yazyk and are not a fable or a distant memory. ‘It shows there’s hope.’ The irony is fierce here since he is speaking, although he doesn’t know it, to the wife of the castrated hussar. She laughs. ‘She hadn’t heard anything so funny for a long time.’ But her interlocutor is not laughing. There is hope in thinking ‘that modern man will make such sacrifices for something they believe in, for more than something they can reach out and touch. That not everything is a transaction.’ What follows is one of the book’s great set-pieces, Anna Petrovna’s diatribe against sacrifice and heaven, against castration and cannibalism, her raging defence of the merely human. ‘Some clown ends his manhood in the forest with a knife when he gets the word from God . . . He’s made his covenant with that thirsty old swine in Heaven. But Heaven is such a long way away, so far.’ And in any case, Anna Petrovna continues, God can’t care about the millions of sacrifices he receives:
God doesn’t have the time. And you think, ‘What if I hadn’t?’ What if I’d stayed with the people I know, what if I’d stayed with the people I’d loved, instead of going all that way with my mean little sacrifice for God, who doesn’t need it? Would that not have been a better and a harder sacrifice? Too late! Your cannibal. Too late! To build a shining future on the meat of his companion? Do you really think a man can eat another and it not leave its mark on every act . . .? Do you really think the stink of that one betrayal isn’t going to spread to all the acts of all the anarchists he inspires?
This speech eloquently states what many of us believe is the only sane view of these matters. But such thinking cannot stop or even comprehend the apocalyptic passions of others, and Meek has scarcely started us on this question before he rattles us with more.
Does the ‘spirit of destruction’ transcend politics? Will our revolutionary cannibal, like a thoroughgoing anarchist, now decide ‘to work to destroy the new Red order’, or will he feel that destruction itself may ‘find its best outlet within, rather than against, the Communists’? ‘Why assassinate a few bureaucrats, after all, if you could terrorise and exterminate them as a class, hundreds of thousands of them?’ This is to turn the cannibal and his colleagues into something like the force of history. Does history have a mind directed towards harm? And if it doesn’t, why does it look as if it does?
Meek’s final question is the bleakest, and takes us back to the first sentence of his novel, and also to the story of the Scottish torturer. After he has taken the bomb from her, Samarin thinks the schoolgirl has swapped her revolutionary concentration for desire, dynamite for cologne, so to speak. But he’s wrong. Later in the book, on two important occasions, a devoted revolutionary gives in to what he calls weakness, tries to see a girl instead of getting on with the revolt, and then puts himself in danger in order to save a child’s life. He is, by the time he tells of them, genuinely angry with himself for these lapses, and even goes so far, in the novel’s one real tumble into bad gothic, as to ask a castrate to castrate him, to remove him from the world of genital desire. But Meek’s question is still characteristically delicate. Do we read what the revolutionary calls weakness as a sign of hope, a proof that humanity cannot entirely wither, even in the worst climates and psychologies? Or do we assume humanity must already have withered beyond recall if we are even thinking we may be cheered by such slender relics?