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James Meek
A remote settlement in Siberia, home to an extreme religious sect in1919 is so far removed from our way of life. What was the inspiration for The Peopleís Act of Love?
The stories in the book are my own; the situations from which the stories arise are not. It so happened that, while I was living in Russia in the mid-1990s, I heard about the three situations which are woven together in the novel - the practice of premeditated cannibalism by escaping convicts, the existence of the castrate sect and the stranding in Siberia of the Czech Legion, trying to make its way home. Each of these situations, as soon as I heard about them, spontaneously brought forth in my mind a set of characters, a unique set of difficulties for human beings. I wanted to place all these characters and the stories they became into books; I knew I would only ever write one novel set in Siberia; so, if I didn't want to lose any of them, I had to put them all into the same book. And it was only possible to do that if they were in that particular place in that particular time.
At times the book reads like a translation of a 19th century Russian novel. Was this intentional? If yes, then how did you achieve it?
"Reads like a translation" isn't necessarily a compliment, is it! I speak Russian and I have spent a lot of time with Russian people, and with other people from the former Soviet space, and with people from other countries who are in the kind of extreme situations I have written about. I've spent this time not "researching": just living. This may partly explain the effect you're talking about; often, when writing the book, I would hear the characters speaking Russian in my head, and I would have to translate their speech into English. I believe that translations into British English poses unique difficulties because of our tendency to impose assumptions about class on both the character speaking, and the translator him/herself; and because, unlike Russian or German or French, English is a divided language - it carries within it, frozen in time, the result of the invasion and conquest of Britain by French-speakers in 1066. Complex states and emotions, in Russian, as in most languages, are usually expressed in words which are made up of little Russian words, whereas in English, they're often expressed by words of French or Latin origin. So much for dialogue; as for the narrative, I didn't intend to make it sound like a translation. This is my fifth work of fiction, the only one so far to have been set entirely abroad and the only one to have been set in the past, and in twenty years of writing I've thought long and deeply about ways of expression, about writing styles. The effect you refer to may, in fact, be my writing style as it has developed, influenced as much by American, Scottish, English, Irish, French, Czech and Italian writers as by Russian ones.
The sense of time and place is extremely powerful, the themes could be transposed on to many other global locations and conflicts. What are your thoughts on this?
I hoped that the characters' dilemmas would have a universal quality which would lift their stories out of the specifics of Russia in 1919. I didn't want it to be a book about Russia; I wanted it to be a book about people which happened to be set in Russia. I began to write the book in 1995 and its course and contents were, in the main, fixed before 11 September 2001. If the events of that day had not taken place, readers and critics would have found some other conflict with which to compare it. The foregoing doesnít mean that the book isnít relevant to what has become a three-way conflict between Islamic fundamentalists, Christian-Jewish fundamentalists, and secularized liberals in the US, Europe, Israel and the Arab world. In the actions of the present-day Islamic suicide bomber you see the perfect fusion of Balashov and Samarinís idea of sacrifice. Like Balashov, the suicide bomber sacrifices his body for an intangible ideal, for the love of God; like Samarin, the suicide bomber sacrifices innocent civilians for an ideal, for the love of the People. Like Balashov and Samarin, the suicide bomber turns his back on the world of parents, children, lovers and friends Ė or tries to, at least. The jails of the world are full of suicide bombers who, when it came to it, like Balashov and Samarin, couldnít turn their backs.
The character of Samarin is central but consistently elusive and mercurial. We tend to see him through other's eyes. What are your thoughts on his role in the novel?
In some dark place within myself, I cannot resist envying Samarin. This envy is a sign that I believe in the character, at least; a sign, perhaps, that he is the manifestation of a pattern of behaviour I have encountered in the world. But what, I wonder, am I envying? His charm, certainly; his ability to seduce men and women to do his will, yes; his confidence, the certainty of his trajectory, his self control, surely. Yet all the time I know that it's a lie, that everything about him is false, that he's committed acts of wickedness, that, as it turns out, he has even betrayed himself. So does that mean I envy the skill of his hypocrisy? Not a pleasant thought. The envy, I think, is no more than a sign that Samarin represents one of those irresolvable contradictions in life, the man whose apparent determination to renounce love and human feeling makes him more attractive.
The poor horses were central to the story. Were they symbolic or metaphorical - perhaps for the past - another time, another space?
If the reader chooses to make them so. This is not a cryptic novel. If there are hidden meanings they are hidden first from me. The way I feel about symbolism in novels is that I want there to be exactly as much potential for a thing or an event to be considered symbolic, no more, no less, as a thing or an event in real life. If, in life, you're feeling miserable, you leave the house and notice that the sky is black with rainclouds, does that mean the sky is a symbol of your depression? No. Are the sky and your mood completely unrelated? Not exactly. Could it be that you notice the dark state of your sky because of your mood? This is closer to the matter of it, I think, and to that extent, and no more, the sky then becomes a symbol of how miserable you're feeling. So the horses in the book are symbolic to the extent that I have created the mood in the reader for the reader to notice the horses in a particular way at the moment they appear. They are a presence throughout the book, and the presence takes on the form of a kind of character in itself - shaming the humans, reminding them of how foolish, complicated, undignified and sinful they are.
Despite the dynamic, action-packed scenes, sometimes there is stillness, almost suggesting a photograph. Does the still image have a role in the novel?
Well, Anna is a photographer, of course, and I do at one point describe in some detail a scene as she shoots it. Some places, some moments, are visualized by me as still pictures, which I then describe - sometimes I visualize them naturally, sometimes by an effort of will because I feel it is necessary to do so.
You are a journalist as well as an author. Do you find that the two conflict?
Iíd make a distinction within journalism between reporting, which is what I have done mainly, and other kinds of journalism Ė reviews, commentaries, interviews with the famous, coverage of sporting events, gossip. One of the main constraints on the reporter, as opposed to the novelist, is space. The reporter is required to be economical with words, sometimes extremely so. The 150-word news story leaves little room for considerations of rhythm or poetry, and the 1,500-word news story not much more. As a rule, there is a close deadline involved, too. It might be thought that this training in economy would benefit a fiction writer. Iím not sure. To be comfortable as a novelist or even a short story writer, you donít want to feel uncomfortable with setting your own limit, or no limit, to length. Over the years the kind of reporting Iíve done has changed. Lately Iíve been given the opportunity to write pieces which may be longer, which may be impressionistic, more about mood and atmosphere in a particular place at a particular time than about the actions of leading players in an event considered news. In that kind of piece, there may be a similarity between the novelist and the journalist in two senses Ė the figurative eye of the writer, actually his eyes, ears, nose and touch, needs to be able to pick out the few details which convey a sense of place and time without the impossible tedium of listing everything perceived. The difference is that the fiction writer is likely to be remembering these much later. The other similarity is imagination. Imagination is usually thought of as the expansion of the real, but it is, equally, a tool to curb the vastness of the actual world of experience. Just as the novelist uses his imagination to delve only into those tiny parts of the infinite world of possibilities which serve his narrative, so the journalist, before he sets out to report a story, needs to use his imagination to decide in advance where he is going to go and who he is going to speak to Ė to imagine the kind of things which might be happening there and the kind of things real people will actually say to him.
Some questions from Roly Allen, one of our regular visitors to the site: The Peopleís Act of Love is a novel of extremes - i.e. extreme acts, in the most extreme environment, during the most horrible civil war. Is this what you are drawn to?
It's also a book, I hope, which has humour, love and beauty in. I wish I could agree that the Russian Civil War was the most horrible - I can't. All civil wars are horrible in a way that people who have spent their lives in Britain in the past fifty years may imagine, but may not know. And yet, and yet. The answer is a kind of qualified no - qualified by my conviction that cruelty, greed, selfishness, passion, self-sacrifice, torture are all present all around us, all the time, whereever we are. It is the way that they emerge which makes them "extreme". I am drawn to human conflict, human passion, human emotion, the textures of love and hate and other forms of desire, whether they become plain with blood and screams or whether they become plain in a look and the tiny tightening of the mouth.
How do you feel the novel relates to Russian classics in the way it tackles big themes?
You'd have to be more specific about what you mean by "Russian classics". You and I may have different ideas of what we mean by that. Generally I mistrust the phrase because Russian literature has such an enormous range. Not just that Gogol isn't Chekhov, and Tolstoy isn't Dostoyevsky, but that the Tolstoy who wrote The Cossacks isn't the same Tolstoy who wrote Resurrection, and so on. And when you do start to treat the Russians book by book, you begin to realise the extent to which their work, unique as it is, has its parallels in other literatures.
What was the effect on you immersing yourself in this re-created world?
I'm still sane, but perhaps it is not for me to judge.
James Meek

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