James Meek, raised in Dundee, was for a number of years a foreign correspondent in Moscow and more recently covered the Iraq war and Guantánamo Bay. In his third novel, he shows a prodigious talent for describing a chapter in the horrific warfare of a century ago. One of his aims is to show how men having to struggle for their lives far from home also have to struggle to keep evil at bay.
The setting is Siberia 1919, with the Red Army in the ascendant on the eastern front of the post-Revolution civil war in Russia. Caught between the Reds and defeated Whites is the Czech Legion, a battalion of crack fighters who, stranded by the end of the First World War, have fought on the White side but now long to return. Quite what happened in fact will probably never be clear, but it is generally agreed that the Czechs secured a safe passage to Vladivostok by doing a deal with the Communist side and betraying the Whites.
Meek shows a possible version of this story in miniature: a few days in the life of a Siberian village where the Czechs are reluctantly in charge and the Red Army poised to attack. The foreign soldiers dream of returning to Prague, while their crazed commander, Matula, insists on staying put. Into this fraught military situation Meek weaves three love stories and a disturbing portrait of shamanism, which amounts to village spirit-worship. The love stories are, equally disturbingly, complicated by the influence of a sect of Christian castrates once famous in Siberia.
The novel opens with a series of brutal deeds to which we slowly attach the names of victims and perpetrators. The action and deeper characterisation that make reading this novel a pleasure only really unfold in the last hundred pages. But for readers fascinated by the setting, Meek provides an extraordinarily detailed picture. The sex is modest, perhaps too much so, but the butchery is not.
In the end the character who gives a moral narrative lead is the good Czech Jew, Mutz. He loves the beautiful Anna Petrovna, a woman hungry for the stimulation her castrate husband can no longer provide. But the man she beds is Samarin, a terrorist on the run from Tsarist days whose capacity to split his personality has reached proportions of Dostoyevskian horror.
One has to admire a British writer who can write convincingly as a Russian. There were linguistically odd moments when I thought I was reading a less than perfect translation ("Did you make these photographs yourself?"; "Go on, take possession of the unfortunate"), and presumably that effect was deliberate. What I missed was enough of the infectiousness that Tolstoy said was essential to art. I needed to feel with Meek's characters. In fact, the creatures I worried about were the horses, revered by the shamans and the castrate Balashov, but forced to die horribly in battle. A kind of equine idealism shimmers over the whole novel, suggesting a dimension of existence finer than anything available in cruel human reality.
Lesley Chamberlain's 'Motherland: a philosophical history of Russia' is published as an Atlantic paperbackReuse content