The Peoples Act of Love by James Meek
I interviewed Mr. Meek in October of 2006. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
This is an amazing and life altering work for me. Thank you for reminding me that I could think outside of my little daily world. I was interested to read in an interview that you said "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."
There are so many stories to be told about Russia and her people, why did you choose to set your self admitted one book on Russia in 1919 and have these situations be the focus of the story? What attracted you to these extreme situations?
JM I don't much care for the word "situations", but I used it because I couldn't think of a better one. I wanted to draw a distinction between stories, and the situations out of which those stories arise. We're always using the word "sitcom", which is, as you know, short for "situation comedy". A bunch of characters is faced with a situation. In the case of the sitcom, it's characters + situation = comedy. In the case of many of the great works of literature which we rightly think of as stories, it's more like characters + situation = story, although that story often happens to be a tragedy. A "sit-trag", if you like. You then get to the intriguing question - which comes first, the situation or the characters? In the case of The People's Act, the characters were born in my mind when I heard about these situations. Two men walking through the forest, the cannibal and his victim. A husband and a father about to cut himself off from his wife and son. A lost army thousands of miles from home. How did they get to that point? How would they deal with it? The stories came in the answers I found in my imagination.
On one level, these particular situations are extreme and unusual. On another, we are faced with extreme situations all around us every day - illness, birth, death, madness. All around me in my life I see people I know going quietly crazy or having the light that once shone in their eyes going out. That's extreme.
For me, it took two times reading the novel to completely understand all of the characters and their actions. I also saw these characters not only as extremes in their behavior in some parts, but as parallels to human behavior that currently is happening in the world today. If this wasn't your intent, why do you believe your book has struck a chord with so many around the world?
JM Maybe because human behaviour doesn't change as much as we sometimes think over the centuries. If there are differences between human behaviour in 1919 and 2006, why might this be, do you think? Is it because the human race has changed, or is it because society, culture and technology has changed? I believe that it is the second reason, and what I tried to do was to find the universally human in my characters, and make the fact that they were living 43 years before I was born incidental. In a more banal sense, too, much of the technology which shapes our lives today, which seems so modern, was already there in shadow form in 1919. The telegraph network was a foreshadowing of the Internet - in fact, pre-revolutionary Russia had one of the world's most advanced telephone systems. And I would argue that the steam train was closer to the age of air travel than it was to the age of horse travel.
The question and my answer to it, of course, feeds into the very themes of the book. People like Samarin and Balashov believed that it was possible to change the very nature of the human race within a lifetime - a view shared by all sorts of people, including Communists, Islamic fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals. I don't think it is.
Your book describes Samarin as well read and as coming from a fairly affluent background. However he had no real allegiance to any particular political group during his formative years at college. What were his motivations for declaring himself a revolutionary in the first place? What side was he fighting for?
JM I take your question as a compliment, because one of the signs of a well-imagined novel, I believe, is the sense it produces in the reader that a larger world exists just beyond the novel's pages - a world that the novelist knows about, but simply has not written down. That's a very interesting boundary there. Samarin is my fictional creation. I invented him. But is there, it could be asked, is there more Samarin that I imagined, that I hold in my head, but which I chose not to tell the readers about? In one sense, yes - of course I thought a lot about him, I imagined scenes he might have taken part in, things which he might have said, experiences he might have had, which I didn't write down. But if I didn't write about them, if I didn't share them with anybody else, in what sense are they real? Once I finish a book, once it's published, I no longer own it, in anything other than a financial sense. There are no secret chapters. What is there is what there is, and what that means is that your notion of what Samarin did outside the pages of the book is, strangely enough, as valid as mine - the only difference being, perhaps, that I know a little bit more about Russia than you. I can tell you what I thought about Samarin when I was writing the bits you ask about. I thought that he was clever enough to let people believe he had no political allegiance, when in fact, from his early teens, he was, in the deepest sense, committed to a struggle for radical changes in society, and had joined a group of terrorist revolutionaries similar to the real-life group called Narodnaya Volya, People's Will. He simply had a genius for lying. The telegram Mutz receives about him, and his own description of himself as The Mohican which he gives to Anna, is the truth about him.
I was once advised that when someone tells you who they are, believe them. On page 29 you have written a conversation where Samarin does exactly that, he clearly tells Balashov who he is with the advisory telling of the story of the Monk and the plague. Does Balashov not comprehend the warning? Or does he want to see how the situation will play out?
JM Good advice. Balashov understands pretty well that Samarin is an exceptionally dangerous individual, but remember that Samarin quickly gains a hold over Balashov - he realises that Balashov is not only a castrate, but one who carries out the castration of others, and is able to gain Balashov's silence in exchange for not revealing this to others.
This story has moved many of us in so many different ways. What did you want the readers of your novel to take from it?
JM I don't know if I had hopes, specifically, that something would be taken from it - if you set out trying to teach readers something, you end up sounding like a preacher or a politician or some bigmouthed wise guy in a bar. Or those guys who spend their time posting opinions to other people's blogs. What I hope when I write a novel is, first, that people will read it; second, that they will finish it; third, that they will like it; and fourth, that I can create in the readers the sense that they are living through a second, alternative time to their own, that mysterious process of narrative which is so difficult to build. I hope, I suppose, to introduce you to some people, to encourage you to watch and listen to them for a little while and see how they deal with some hard issues; so that in the end you might be left with some outlying markers in the same place your real world memories lie, and your memory richer, and your tolerance greater, and your wisdom more.
Could you comment on the character of Anna? She’s obviously devoted to her son, but suffers with the humiliation of “losing” her husband to the castrates sect. She seems to be something of a “flighty” character in that she sleeps with various men and in the end easily flips from going with Mutz to taking a photographer position. Is she doing what she feels is best for her child, or is she taking the selfish route, doing what’s best for Anna? Why was it important for her to be alone?
JM She's torn, I would say. Don't you know somebody like that? Who is drawn to lightness and change and spur of the moment decisions, to the things which attract her in that instant - but who at the same time knows that it would be better for her and her child in the long run to make a sacrifice of freedom for the sake of stability? I don't know that the flip was so easy. And there are all sorts of factors to take into account. Crazy as her decision to take her wounded son off into the woods with the Red cavalry might seem, to leave Russia with Mutz would have been crazy too - a man she didn't really love, leaving her homeland, going to a country she'd never seen where they spoke a language she didn't speak, marrying a Jew in a profoundly anti-semitic world, as the world was then?
I've read interviews that lead me to understand that you consider Samarin to be one of the heroes, can you tell us why? Also that you consider the Castrate/Balashov to be a hero. Does "hero" refer to the character in the book that becomes ( as described on the dust cover as "the flash point" in the story) someone that is admired for achievements or personal qualities?
JM I like to use hero in the sense of principal male character, rather as a comment on that character's virtues and defects. A hero without flaws isn't very interesting, of course. As I have said before, I'm in love with Anna, Mutz is my friend, I'm jealous of Samarin and I like Balashov but I wouldn't want to be stuck talking to him at a party for too long.
The relationship as described between Katya and Samarin is brief and sexually oriented as evidenced by the kiss and the description that he is not a proper suitor for Katya. Did the act of attempting to take the bomb from her illustrate his feelings for her or his desire to participate in the revolution? Did the arrest and imprisonment of Katya then influence Samarin to declare him a revolutionary and the motivation to participate in terrorism?
JM Although I didn't say so explicitly, I wanted to imply that Samarin was already involved in revolutionary activity up to his neck, but had been successful about keeping it a secret. So in fact everything you mention - his taking the bomb from Katya, his reaction to her arrest and imprisonment - was not a spur to his revolutionary activity, but an obstacle to it. His love for Katya, and, subsequently, his relationship with Anna, are diversions from his Jesuitical monomania with revolution, and he despises himself for it. When he steals the bomb; when he tries to rescue Katya from the White Garden; when he turns back the train in order to save Alyosha; all these are signs of his emotional triumph as an individual, and, in his own terms, of his failure as a revolutionary. Where the two lines cross, of course, is in his act of cannibalism. For most of the book, it appears to have been his act of love for the future of the Russian people. In the end, we find out it is is act of love for one person, for Katya.
The chapter titled “ The Locomotive” was so powerfully written. Alyosha as the child in the novel seems to lose his innocence in this chapter. Seeing the events through his eyes was very emotional for me as the reader. There are some profound statements made by Alyosha in this chapter. Was it your intent to write this chapter in this manner to achieve that effect?
JM All I can say is that I often find the chapters which have the most intensity and speed are those which are written with the most care, thought and trouble. This is where it is clearest that as the writer of fiction you are carrying out an act of controlled dreaming: both experiencing the events in your mind, and, at the same time, finding words to describe them.
Alyosha’s dialogue with the characters is so strong but in a simple manner. Is his character actually the symbol of seeing things the way they are without all the pretense, or is it just a symbol of the naïveté of people?
JM I'm not sure. I do sometimes wonder whether there is a noticeable difference between writers writing about children who have children of their own, and those who don't. Those who don't, perhaps, are more inclined to make the effort to remember how they were as children themselves. That's the category I come into.
Samarin is in the forest when he comes upon the Castrate. Was he there to dismantle the railroad so that the Reds could not continue their infiltration into Siberia, which meant he was possibly acting for the Whites, or was he just lost and needed a place of refuge as he is described as dirty, long beard, hair with lice etc.?
JM When we come across Samarin at this point, he is at the end of his journey through the wilderness, which involved the prison camp and the act of cannibalism and many months of walking. Remember the bundle he tries to get rid of, and what it contains. The point where he sees the train is the first moment for many months that he has seen anything resembling civilization and modernity. The train, this point, is a symbol of the interconnected, civilized world - those railway tracks which connect Siberia with Europe and Asia and, by ship, to America.
If the purpose of castration was to create "angels" and to eliminate lust, hate, greed, etc. "all the games between the sexes" then why does the Castrate embody all these feelings when he kills Matula? What was the motivation of the Castrate to join the sect?
JM Balashov, I think, undergoes two changes. One is when he is castrated. The second is just before he dies, when his relationship to God changes. His relationship to God becomes more like that of a brave young cavalryman to his general, or to a lover he wants to impress. He wants to perform an act of sacrifice so profound that it will move God to love him. In his final way of thinking, castration and the Castrate way of life is too easy; it's a guaranteed ticket to heaven. A real sacrifice would involve doing something sinful, which would save the lives of others (Anna, Alyosha, the other castrates) but would ensure that the man who did it would himself go straight to hell. That's why, I think, Balashov resolves to kill Matula.
How do the events in this work relate to today's global problems?
JM Each generation has to discover for itself the problems which previous generations suffered, and each generation thinks it's the first to suffer them. There have always been men - and, more often than not, they are men, rather than women - driven by their ideas and dreams and plans to commit acts of violence. For the people, but against people; for humanity, but against the human. That's the idea of the people's act of love: an act which, by itself, to the people who witness it immediately, seems criminal, murderous, insane; but in the minds of the people who carry it out, it is an act carried out on behalf of the inhabitants of a better future world. It is their love which drives them to do these things. In the minds of the September 11 hijackers - well, some of them, perhaps - the crashing of a plane into the World Trade Center was the people's act of love directed from a future Islamic world of peace and security. I could have explained to the young Iraqi boy I met outside Baghdad during the US-British invasion of the country in 2003, whose parents and sister had just been shot by US Marines, that it was all for the sake of a better, fairer, safer world - but I don't think he would have believed me.
Matula and his mistress Elizaveta Timirovna used cocaine freely, why did you choose to include drug and hallucinogenic mushrooms in the story?
JM Magic mushrooms are a traditional method for shamans to experience the ecstatic visions which are a part of their role in native Siberian society. Cocaine, which was sold freely over the pharmacy counter in the US, Britain and Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was often abused during the Russian Civil War. It seemed like a good place to introduce it. What does it say about Matula and Elizaveta Timurovna? If you walked in on people like that snorting coke in a situation like that, it might be reasonable to think that Matula in particular was neglecting his duties towards his men, that he was more interested in pleasure and self-indulgence than wisdom or work, that he was selfish, egotistical, more frightened of boredom than of death. Cocaine for breakfast; it's not nourishing, is it? To me the idea of feeding yourself something which does not nourish your body or your mind, but gives you a brief thrill, suggests all sorts of personal weaknesses. Although I don't use cocaine, I don't say I'm immune to these weaknesses.
What book are you reading now?
JM No God But God, by Reza Aslan, and The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, and the poems of John Donne
Do you view any one character as the most important character in the novel? If so, who and why?
JM I see the book as having a quartet of characters of equal importance - Anna, Balashov, Mutz and Samarin. Anna is the first among equals, perhaps, for two reasons. One is that she is the axis around which the novel turns; the other three characters all have an intimate relationship with her, are all drawn to her. The other reason is that she is emotionally the fullest character in the book. Balashov and Samarin are deficient in common sense; Mutz is deficient in passion. Anna leans towards both poles at different times.
You have written such compelling characters and made us care about them, is there any chance that you would write a sequel that would take us through the 1930's and WWII?
JM I have no plans to. The novel I'm writing, which is half-finished - it's called We're Now Beginning Our Descent - is set in Afghanistan, Britain and the US in 2001 and 2002, and I have at least three other book projects in mind after that. I have sometimes wondered what might have happened to the characters in the Soviet-Nazi era; Alyosha, of course, could still be alive today, although he'd be in his nineties. I'm afraid Mutz might have been too clever to see such a stupid phenomenon as the Nazis gaining power, so he might have got caught, and I'm afraid Anna was too free a spirit for Stalin's Russia, so she might have got caught, too. And after that, who knows? There could be a sequel in the Legion's journey across Siberia to the Pacific; there were some extraordinary events around the Tsar's gold reserves and the last days of Admiral Kolchak. But I don't think I'm going to write that sequel.
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