Published on December 24, 2007
Set in Russia two years after the October Revolution of 1917, "The People's Act of Love" is a story woven from three little-known historical events lurking beneath the violent upheavals of the time. They could be headed Czechs, Cannibalism and Castration.
The first concerns the remnants of a company of the Czech legion, who were marooned in a small Siberian village with a vast sea of Bolsheviks raging around them. The second is the recorded use of "cows" - fattened-up fellow inmates - for food by prisoners making their escape across the frozen wastes from Siberian Gulags. And the third refers to the skoptsy, a sect of religious extremists who practised castration in a bid to become angels.
These are the foundations on which the author builds a tale about spiritual extremism, which in different guises possesses three of its five main characters. The first is Samarin, an intense young revolutionary who walks into the Siberian village of Yazyk with a tale of how he has escaped a prison camp in the company of a maneater called the Mohican, who is hot on his trail.
He's heard out by the presiding power of Yazyk, the Czech's vain and psychopathic 24-year-old commanding officer, Matula, who is gleefully preparing to sacrifice his men to the impending Bolshevik invasion. Samarin quickly realises that the other pillar of the community, a former cavalry officer called Balashov, is the leader of a castrate sect of skoptsy.
The balance to these "cannibals" - individuals who are willing to give their own flesh or others' in the service of an idea - comes in the form of the down-to-earth human love embodied by the remaining two characters. Anna Petrovna is the wife of Balashov who, though driven half mad by his act, has followed him to Siberia with their young son. She has begun a tentative affair with a Jewish lieutenant called Mutz, who is calm and intelligent but agonises that his lack of passion will lose him the love of Anna. His fears become reality when she takes in Samarin and is seduced by the dark charisma in his predictions of the tide of destruction the Mohican is bringing. But Mutz has been assigned to look into Samarin's case, and his dogged pursuit of the truth eventually turns up answers from a shaman who has seen the Mohican at work in the forest.
Author Meek is a journalist by profession, something that shows in his ability to anchor a character in the reader's mind with a few carefully chosen details. He blows more life into each of his creations by lending them a voice of their own rather than a mouthpiece for themes or plot development.
Though the scope of the story is epic (look out for the Hollywood adaptation), because the characters come alive, the plot feels bedded in real human lives and motives. That these motives stretch to such extremes adds to the chilling fascination and offers the kind of absorbing read that doesn't come along very often.
50 FACTS THAT SHOULD CHANGE THE WORLD
By Jessica Williams
Published by Icon Books
Available at Asia Books, Bt495
"Hey you, yes YOU," shouts this book from the shelves, "GET YOUR LOUSY STARBUCK'S CHUGGING, GAP-CLAD HIDE BACK HERE AND LET ME SET YOU STRAIGHT".
If you can get past the hectoring title though, you'll find a more thoughtful approach in the three-page essays that delve into the story behind facts that run from the things you already have an idea of (that cars kill two people every minute), to eye-openers like the estimated worth of the global trade in illegal drugs being roughly the same as that of the world's legal pharmaceutical industry.
Williams' illumination of this latter statistic steers clear of easy sound-bite solutions in favour of a balanced look at the arguments. Nevertheless, she comes to the conclusion that the "war on drugs" in its present form is lost in advance, citing facts such as while spending on drug control in the US has gone up 50 per cent in the last decade, drug-use levels have remained more or less constant. Prohibition has never and will never work, she points out, while a significant proportion of the world's population choose to use drugs. Grim but half-familiar realities such as that landmines kill or maim at least one person an hour or that one in five people go hungry every day are mixed with snapshots of a changing world (did you know that Brazil now has more Avon ladies than members of its armed services, or that in 2006, 16 million Americans had some form of plastic surgery?).
Nope, knowing these facts won't change the world, but there's interesting food for discussion here.