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The lower end of the higher good

23 July 2005

12:00 AM

23 July 2005

12:00 AM

The People’s Act of Love James Meek

Canongate, pp.387, 12.99

This superb novel takes place in the remote settlement of Yazyk, at the end of a 100-mile spur off the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is 1919. Most of the inhabitants belong to a bizarre Christian sect who desire no part in the political upheavals further west. But events have intruded upon them in the form of a detachment of the Czechoslovak Legion. The soldiers are commanded by the terrifying Matula, whose flesh was ‘coarsely flayed by heat and cold and fevers and jaundices and scurvies gone by.’ While his exhausted men dream of escaping from years of fighting to Vladivostock, and thence home to Prague, Matula seems to contemplate establishing a private fiefdom in the wilderness even though he understands that the Reds are closing in.

A man called Samarin walks into this tense situation, claiming to have escaped from a prison camp in the Arctic Circle where he was confined for possession of a bomb in 1911. He says he is being pursued by a criminal known as the Mohican, a kind of


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