02 November 2006


Canongate £14.99 (1-84195-654-6) Church Times Bookshop £13.50

IT IS a tribute to James Meek’s style that the reader can imagine this to be the translation of an unknown novel by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky rather than a contemporary work. It is a tribute to his research and knowledge of Russia that one keeps wanting to check the historical and geographical detail of what is, after all, fiction.

Set in an isolated town in Siberia in 1919, it portrays a world in which the civil war now tidily described as the Russian Revolution continues to create uncertainty, fear, and suspicion. The town unwillingly hosts a benighted Czech regiment, its members desperate to return home; and also a small Christian sect, whose ambition is to recreate paradise on earth.

To fulfil this aim they adopt a gruesome method. As one member explains: “I have taken the Keys of Hell which hung upon me and have thrown them into the furnace.” Like all the men in this sect, he has done so literally — by castration. Their justification comes from Matthew’s Gospel: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out.”

Not surprisingly, a non-believing Czech lieutenant reacts to the cult with some strident comments on the Bible. He describes the Old Testament deity as “a vaudeville God on wheels”, and dismisses the New Testament as “miracles in exchange for faith”. Equally predictably, given the sect’s preoccupations, the novel is at times sexually explicit.

But into this bleak world come hope and humanity in the form of Anna, seeking her lost husband, a Hussar who has joined the sect; and also an enigmatic escapee from a Communist gulag.

What makes the novel alarming is the revelation that it is based on fact. A Czech regiment was marooned in Siberia; a religious sect of castrates did exist in Russia, some survivors still alive in 1971; and (another theme of the novel) gulag escapees often took along with them a companion selected especially for cannibalistic purposes.

Even so, this is a haunting and moving story — and also a timely fable about what can happen when Christians react too strongly against sexual pleasure.

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