‘The extreme and the intimate’

Siberia during the Russian Revolution is the setting for James Meek’s latest novel, «The People’s Act of Love,» winner of the 2006 Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award and the 2006 Ondaatje Prize. In that harsh, remote landscape, a singular cast plays out the extremes of human emotion and belief. A Jewish lieutenant in a Czech legion stranded by the fortunes of war, a sect of Christians who seek purity through castration, a woman who flouts convention in the pursuit of love, and a man who claims to have escaped both a prison camp and a would-be cannibal, encounter what the author calls «life’s absolute tests.» Meek, author of three novels and two collections of short stories, also worked as a reporter for 20 years, winning awards for his articles on places such as Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. He contributes to the Guardian, the London Review of Books and Granta. Ahead of his visit to Greece as the guest of the British Council and his Greek publishers Ellinika Grammata, Kathimerini English Edition asked Meek about his work. How did «The People’s Act of Love» come into being and at what point did you see how to weave together its many different strands? After I finished my second novel, «Drivetime,» in Moscow in the mid-1990s, I began to hear stories about people who, in Siberia, encountered life’s absolute tests. I heard, and began to read more about, extreme religious sects which found a kind of forced refuge in Siberia; lost, forgotten armies, fighting for shifting causes along Siberia’s railways and rivers; revolutionaries who were exiled to Siberia by the czar, exile which became the justification for Stalin’s harsher Gulag system after the revolutionaries won; and convicts who planned their cannibalism in advance, as part of their escape from Siberian labor camps. Recklessly, I decided that I could work these different stories into one. I began thinking about the book which became «The People’s Act of Love» in 1995, and began writing it in February 1996, in a flat on the 15th floor of a tower block near Moscow’s Tulskaya metro station. I worked at it intermittently and slowly, in the free time from my job as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, for several years. I was often discouraged. I often put it aside, afraid that I’d taken on too much, trying to put so many different ideas into a single narrative. It was only in late 2003, when I had a long break from journalism after returning from Iraq, and locked myself away in a remote cottage in Bohemia, that I worked out how to knit the story together. What challenges were there in marrying the individual lives you portray with the great events through which they live? We’re living through great events now. But we don’t know which events are great, and which are trivial. Ninety years from now, people may think that the invasion of Iraq was a minor footnote to the greater story we are living through. Ninety years from now, what might seem extraordinary in a novel about 2007 is that characters were still eating meat, or flying across Europe for the weekend. That’s the difference history makes – if you can call the mixture of myth and selective facts about the past we carry with us «history.» From the vantage point of history, events look clearer than they do from inside. What I tried to do in «The People’s Act of Love» was to shift all the awareness of the greater significance of events onto the reader and away from the characters; the characters have no ability to see into the future, and what seems clear to us seems chaotic to the characters, with many possible routes ahead. All they can do is to try to retain some control over their personal destinies. Anna doesn’t know Stalin is coming; she couldn’t imagine anything so terrible. Mutz, a Jew returning to Central Europe in 1919, can’t imagine the Final Solution. Samarin is the exception. What he describes as a terrible experience he endured turns out later to be something he imagined; something very like the Gulag, which is yet to come. If you want to know the future, you have to look into the what the present imagines. What drew you to portray characters that go to such extremes in acting out their beliefs? I am drawn to extremes generally. The universal passions like rage, hate, sexual desire, love for a child, are important, in life and to a writer, but you can’t make a novel from them by themselves; they are elements. Where it gets powerful is where people carry out extreme acts on the basis of a process of – as it seems to them – rational thought, or on the basis of profound faith. This kind of thing is going on around us all the time; people are tattooing and piercing themselves, Jewish and Muslim children are being ritually circumcised, women in North Africa are being genitally mutilated, people are blowing other people up or dropping bombs on them, Catholic priests are denied sex… events in Russia in the past provided a framework for me to write a story about a particular set of acts which were both extreme and intimate. It is in our nature to have a distorted idea of what «extreme» is. All the most terrible and extreme things which humanity has done to itself in the past few hundred years have begun, not with a man taking a knife to flesh, but with a group of men having a committee meeting. What kind of feedback have you received from Russian-speaking readers about the subject matter of the book and your treatment of it? On the personal level, it’s been good, flatteringly favorable, and not just from Russian speakers I know. There was an interesting, not entirely complementary, article in Kommersant, one of the better Russian dailies, looking at my book together with another book by a reporter who used to work in Moscow, Ken Kalfus’s «The Commissariat of Enlightenment.» The essence of the article was a complaint about the unfairness of Russian publishers buying and translating books in English set in civil war Russia, when English-language publishers weren’t buying and translating Russian books set in civil war Russia. But even that article didn’t suggest there was anything profoundly wrong about the book itself. The biggest problem the Russian reviewer seemed to have with «The People’s Act of Love» was that Irvine Welsh liked it. How do fiction and journalism complement each other in your writing life? Maybe they don’t. Ask me again in 20 years. The success of «The People’s Act of Love» has enabled me to quit journalism for the time being – I haven’t worked full time as a reporter since 2005, and have done very little journalism since 2006. What can I be sure about as far as my reporting days are concerned? That I did it because I needed to eat, but not just because I needed to eat. I had experiences I would not have had otherwise. I learned a lot. Perhaps I wrote one or two worthwhile articles among the hundreds I wrote. Here is the virtue of it – that I could earn money by a profession which was close to my ambition to be a good novelist, without being so close that it merged with it uncomfortably, as being, for instance, a creative writing tutor or a book reviewer would have been. But it is terribly hard work trying to do two things at once. As time goes by, it becomes more and more of a mystery to me how I managed to write three novels and two books of short stories while doing another full-time writing job. Meet James Meek today at the British Council in Thessaloniki (9 Ethnikis Amynas St) at 7.30p.m., and tomorrow in Athens (17 Kolonaki Sq) at 8 p. m.