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Interview excerpt - James Meek

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 13, 2007 2:45 pm    Post subject: Interview excerpt - James Meek Reply with quote

In the actions of the present-day Islamic suicide bomber you
see the perfect fusion of Balashov's and Samarin's idea of sacri-
fice. Like Balashov, the suicide bomber sacrifices his body for
an intangible ideal, for the love of God; like Samarin, the
suicide bomber sacrifices innocent civilians for an ideal, for the
love of the People. Like Balashov and Samarin, the suicide
bomber turns his back on the world of parents, children, lovers
and friends – or tries to, at least. The jails of the world are
full of suicide bombers who, when it came to it, like Balashov
and Samarin, couldn't turn their backs. If it makes some read-
ers uncomfortable that Balashov's religious fanaticism is
Christian, and that Samarin ultimately sees in that Christian
fanaticism a solution to personal distraction, I'll have had one
AL: Irish novelist Dermot Bolger, talking about his latest novel
The Family on Paradise Pier, said 'if you really want to under-
stand the past, it means you do not have heroes and villains;
you remember the complexities of a decade and try not to be
wise after the event'. Is there a challenge for a novelist deal-
ing with the weight of history, in dealing with his/her charac-
ters? Should literature be non-judgemental? Is The People's Act
of Love non-judgemental? It's interesting that while Mutz may
be the most sympathetic character, he's far from the most
charismatic (Anna, after all, loves and hates both Balashov and
Samarin, not the reasonable and heroic Mutz).

JM: Yes. Sad, isn't it? And true, I think. Not 'I think': I know.
You don't have to be in a war for it to happen, either. When
writing about the past, you have to avoid the temptation to
irony or the application of retrospective morals. In my book
that means no 'I bumped into a funny little man in the
western trenches, corporal by the name of Hitler' and no
concealing the pervasive racism and anti-semitism of 1919,
even among relatively sympathetic characters. What is impor-
tant is that you, the writer, sympathise with each expression
of each character at the moment they are making it. A novel
free of any moral framework runs the risk of dullness. But
there is a difference between making a sharp observation about
your characters' behaviour, or about the behaviour of people
in general, and making a judgement about it. The observation
is the writer's; the judgement is the reader's. Yet by making the
observation, you are inviting the judgement.
author interview
938itext 3/11/05 12:55 pm Page 405
What is also surprising about this novel is how relevant it is to the
current discourse concerning war and peace. Perhaps this critic is
reading too much into the fact that the author has spent the past few
years reporting from both Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, but I can't help
but feel that Meek is attempting to paint a broader canvas, both in
terms of how wars are started and the rather subjective and morally
relativistic nature of terrorism. When Samarin makes proclamations
such as, "I'm a manifestation. Of present anger and future love," it's
impossible not to imagine the same words coming out of the mouth of a
jihadist to justify his savagery. When history looks back on our
current situation, will the end results be as tragic as the slow,
violent death of Trotsky's perpetual revolution? Is there a
contemporary people's act of love that doesn't involve politics,
religion, or violence?

The previous digression notwithstanding, The People's Act of Love is
an unqualified success. A richly imagined story, heartbreakingly
rendered characters, and a narrative arc that will keep the reader's
attention to the bitter end combine to make this essential reading for
anybody who takes the novel as an art form seriously.
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