James Meek's last, bestselling novel, The People's Act of Love, published in 2005 to great critical acclaim, was set in 1919, in 'that part of Siberia lying between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk'. Anglophone readers who can locate 'that' part of Siberia without a good atlas deserve spot prizes. The historical date and exotic location gave Meek a fictional and cultural space in which extraordinary events and people could seem believable, when placed inside a landscape rendered in exact and first-hand detail. Things are possible between Omsk and Krasnoyarsk in 1919 (as they used to be in first-century Palestine) that would raise eyebrows were they reported now in, say, Camden Town or Virginia. It's a tribute to Meek's skill as both a realist and a determined unrealist that he could seemingly invent a strange Christian sect of self-mutilated castrates and a cannibal who takes along a green companion on his journey lest he run short of food along the way, and then reveal in an afterword that such practices were well documented in the Russia of the time - which is rather like finding a footnote to One Hundred Years of Solitude directing one to a peer-reviewed article about inexplicable ascensions by means of bedsheets in Colombian villages. The People's Act of Love is grounded in the poise of its subtly 'period' style, as if Meek were channelling the spirit of Constance Garnett, whose precise and elegant Bloomsbury dialect was for so long the quality-assurance stamp of the classic Russian novel in English.
LRB 7 February 2008 | PDF Download