Religious fanaticism and impassioned political radicalism are the combustible conjoined themes of the globetrotting British journalist’s third novel.
Meek, who lived in Russia and the Ukraine during the 1990s, clearly knows his way around Siberia—where most of the story’s actions occur. Its story proper begins when its antihero Samarin (whose orphaned boyhood and conflicted commitment to revolutionary principles are sketched in a prelude) is observed wandering in a Siberian forest just as a soldier and several panicked horses plunge to their deaths from a railway bridge—whereupon Samarin encounters Balashov, a former soldier in the civil war that followed the 1917 revolution, and now the leader of a cult based in the remote village of Yazyk. This hamlet is also temporary home to a Czech legion that had fought on the side of the (ruling class) Whites in that war, now stranded far from their comrades, and vulnerable to the approaching Red (revolutionary) Army. Numerous stories emerge, and complex relationships are established and endangered. Samarin, whose tales of political imprisonment and persecution are at best half-truths, stubbornly pursues his dream of a catastrophic cleansing revolution. Balashov and his followers seek purification through escape from the body’s tyranny by way of voluntary castration. The wife Balashov has abandoned, Anna Petrovna, seeks solace in her passion for photography, her attraction to the smoldering, cryptic (indeed, Dostoevskian) Samarin and the chaste attentions of Jewish Czech soldier Mutz, whose quietly conveyed decency confronts the cocaine-fuelled fury of his increasingly deranged superior officer Matula. Meek throws them all together in impressively dramatic “big” scenes whose power is ever-so-slightly vitiated by contrived explications of the paradox indicated by his superb title: the destructiveness latent in visionary all-or-nothing reversals of social order and “normal” human impulses.
A provocative, skillfully plotted, emotionally engaging fiction—and a giant step forward for the gifted Meek.