by James Meek

The People’s Act of Love – EXTRACTS FROM A NOVEL

November 2, 2009 | by James Meek

Broucek sat on the bed next to Mutz, holding onto his rifle muzzle with both hands. He was dark as a gypsy, although he said he wasn’t one, and insisted, without ever getting angry about it, that no gypsy had ever come close enough to his mother to have contributed to the conception, or to have popped a changeling in the crib. He was tall and moved his height around with shambling grace. His mouth was slung in a permanent half-smile and his big inky eyes looked down on everyone with innocence and interest. He was not witty, he had no stories to tell, and he was not a good liar or flatterer, but in the course of the journey from Bohemia to Siberia he had found how attractive to women he was and, without intending to, had picked up, from them, the language that he could use to charm them. His friend Nekovar, who had devoted his life to identifying what he described as the mechanical basis of female arousal, was constantly badgering him for data. In the meantime, they were a farm hand and a draughtsman made soldiers. On the worst day of their reluctant service, in Staraya Krepost, Broucek had hung back, not wanting to take part, and never noticed how the women’s screams choked into a horror more silent and terrible when they saw the fresh, clean, unlined face of Broucek, beautiful and unworldly, among their tormenters, when the women realised that angels and devils were far closer to each other than they would ever be to them.

“Here’s the new money,” said Mutz, showing Broucek the billion-crown note. Broucek took it and studied it for a long time.

“There are nine zeroes,” he said.
“Yes. It’s a billion. We’re all going to be billionaires.”
“A billion is a lot.”
“It’s a hell of a lot. It’s a thousand millions.”
“A thousand millions!”
“Yes!”
“When I was working on the farm in Bohemia we got ten crowns. Ten!” Broucek grinned and his hands sprang fingers. “You could buy all sorts of things with ten crowns. Kilo of coffee, or playing cards, or a handkerchief, or a bottle of cognac, or a pair of boots, or a day ticket to Hradec Kralove, or a newspaper, or an English hat, or an axe, or a mousetrap, or a mouth organ, or a bunch of carnations, or a bag of oranges. And the last time we were paid we each got, how much?”

“Five hundred million crowns.”
“Yes. And there wasn’t anything to buy, except sunflower

seeds, and they cost a hundred million for a packet. Maybe it’s because Siberia is so big. Maybe that’s it. Like the same thing happens with the miles as happens with the money. In Bohemia if you travel ten miles everything changes. Here you go thousands of miles and everything looks the same. Flat, with birches and crows. Is that Masaryk in the picture?”

“Yes.”
“You’ve drawn him well. When’s he going to bring us home,

then?”
“I don’t know.”

Broucek sniffed and leaned forward to scratch his nose on the tip of the rifle muzzle. “Must be fine for him in Prague,” he said. “He’ll be in the castle now. He shouldn’t have left us here in Siberia, should he. Maybe he’s forgotten us.”

“No,” said Mutz. “But you know. When the French and the British and the Americans got together and decided how to carve up the Empire, everyone who wanted a bit of it had to bring something to the table. Something valuable, like gold, or coal, or blood. And Masaryk didn’t have any gold or coal to offer.”

“Didn’t he?” said Broucek. “I thought he was rich.”
“Not in those things.”
“So it’s blood, then.”
“Yes.”
“Our blood.”
“Yes.”
“We fought the Germans. Wasn’t that enough blood for

them?”
“That was good, but now that the Germans are beaten, the

French and the British and the Americans are worried about the Reds.”

“Because they killed the Tsar.”
“More because they want to divide all the property up and

share it out.”

“Yes, I heard that,” said Broucek, nodding. “It sounds like a good idea. Isn’t that what Czechoslovakia is going to be like when we get back?”

“I’m not sure,” said Mutz. “Is that what you want it to be like?”

“Yes. I don’t have any property at the moment. I always wanted a grandfather clock. And a piano. And a suit like the ones the English wear to the horse races.”

“You forgot the gramophone.”

Broucek shrugged. “Someone else can have the gramo

phone. I’d like to get back to see about the clock, though. It’s time. We fought the Reds already. They seem like Russians. So do the Whites. They all seem like Russians. They don’t need us here. They’re killing each other well enough without us. Maybe Masaryk wants to make a Czechoslovakian Empire, like the British and the French have. Maybe he thinks if the English on their little island can have the whole of India, the Czechs and the Slovaks can run Siberia.”

“Not Masaryk,” said Mutz.
“The captain, is it, then,” said Broucek.
“Yes,” said Mutz.
“Some of the others think we should kill him.”
“That would be mutiny.”
“Yes.”
“He pays Smutny, Hanak, Kliment, Dezort and Buchar in

dollars to protect him, and they have the Maxim gun.”
“You could lead us out of here. You could get us to Vladi

vostok without the captain.”

There was a timid knock on the door.
“Mr Balashov’s outside,” said Broucek, standing up.
“I’ll see him. You go down and ask Nekovar if the shaman’s

all right.”
“Nekovar’s not here, brother. He’s keeping an eye on the

locals gathering in the back room of Mr Balashov’s shop.” “So no-one’s on duty outside the yard?”
“There’s only the shaman in there, and he’s chained, so he

can’t get out.”
“What if someone wanted to get in?” said Mutz.

They ran out into the dark corridor, past Balashov, who

called something after them. Mutz’s boots and Broucek’s beat the floor in the silence of the corridors and on the threshold the soldier’s gunbolt rattled in and out. Outside it had turned colder and begun to rain.

The two men ran through the archway and approached the shaman’s kennel, a smudge against the wall by the light from Mutz’s window. Mutz’s boot kicked against glass. He squatted down and picked up an empty litre bottle. Remnant raw spirit danced out and stabbed his sinuses. He dropped the bottle into the new mud, coughed and wiped his eyes. It was getting easier to see. The shaman was sitting in the mud with his back against the side of the kennel, his drum over his stomach, and his hands folded over the drum. Mutz shook him by the shoulder. The corroded iron animals and coins and folded tin can lids adorning the shaman’s coat beat their cat’s alley tune. Mutz took a lighter out of his tunic and held the flame to the shaman’s face. The rain was washing bile and blood out of his scraggly beard where they had trickled from his mouth. The shaman coughed and there was a smell of stomach acid and alcohol. His good eye fluttered. It did not open.

Mutz put his hand on the shaman’s shoulder and shook. “Hey,” he said. “Who gave you the drink?”
“Too far south,” said the shaman. The words were faint. He spoke good Russian through a strong Tungus accent and a throat roughened by age, illness and alcohol. In his whisper was the bare trace of a voice, like the last redness in the ashes of a fire. The words were not slurred: he sounded more exhausted than drunk.

“Did someone hit you?” said Mutz. There was a cut in the shaman’s lip.

“I told him I couldn’t see his brother in the other worlds,” said the shaman. “I could only hear him, down there, where it stinks. I heard the brother crying that he wanted his body back.”

“Whose brother?” Mutz turned to Broucek. “Have you any idea what he’s talking about?”

Broucek shrugged. “My father used to get drunk and scream nonsense for hours and nobody asked him what he was talking about.”

The shaman’s head lolled over to one side and he began coughing and vomiting. Mutz shook his shoulder again.

“We have to get you inside,” he said.

Broucek said: “You have the key.”

Mutz felt shame. He began looking in his pockets for the key to the padlock which fastened the shaman to the kennel. The shaman retched into the mud. The reflex seemed to jolt a mild current of life into him and he inhaled and opened his eye.

“Damn,” said Mutz. “Broucek, run back to my room. The key’s on the hook beside my bed. Shaman. Tell me who hit you. Who gave you the spirit?”

“When I had three good eyes, I was a brave warrior,” said the shaman. “In the singers’ stories I was a warrior. They called me Our Man.”

“Please,” said Mutz. “Try to understand what I’m asking you. You must tell me who did this to you.”

“No,” said the shaman. “He’ll pursue Our Man to the Upper World. He is a cruel demon. He is an avakhi.” The shaman’s hand darted into his pouch, pulled out a dry dark fragment, slipped it between his lips and began to chew. “Our Man’ll die soon. He’s leaving.”

“Wait,” said Mutz. “We’ll take care of you inside. Wait a little while, just until we fetch the key.”

“Our Man can’t see where he’s going now, but he can smell larches, and hear a branch creaking where a rope’s pulling on it, and smell a birch bark coffin swinging in the wind on the end of the rope.”

“Wait,” said Mutz. “Live! Heal yourself. You’ve lived through worse nights than this. What did he say to you, the demon?” The shaman’s voice changed; it had the same barely voiced-whisper, but without the accent, and a harsh sneer added, as if he had recorded the demon’s voice on an acetate disk. “You whoring son of a bitch,” said the shaman in the demon’s voice. “What did you come here for? D’you think I’m going to believe your whoring shaman visions and hang myself?” The demon’s voice crackled through the shaman’s in a distorted European laugh. “Folk love blind fortune tellers. They think the less they see, the more they know.”

“I can find and punish this man if you help me,” said Mutz. “Did you know him? Did you meet him before?”

The shaman breathed deeply in and out and shivered violently several times. In his own voice, he said: “Leaving.”

Mutz heard the sound of Broucek running back. “There’s Broucek with the key,” he said. “Soon we’ll have you inside, out of the rain.”

The shaman put one of his hands palm down in the mud and made a sweeping stroke through it. “No deer to carry Our Man to the Upper World, and no horse,” he said. “This mud is soft. Push Our Man through it to the river, push him out into the water, and let the current take him north.”

Broucek splashed up and Mutz grabbed the key from him and unlocked the padlock.

“The keel slides through the mud and floats free,” whispered the shaman. There was a sound in his throat like an injured bird in fallen leaves. “In the future,” he said, “everyone will have a horse.” His head fell forward. Mutz lifted his head back, tugged at his jaw to open his mouth a little and held the back of his hand against it. He waved the lighter back and forth in front of the shaman’s good eye, and sought a pulse with his other hand.

“Is he dead?” said Broucek.
“Yes. He drank himself free,” said Mutz. “How does a

chained man get hold of a litre of alcohol in the middle of the night in a town like this?”

Mutz looked at the shaman’s face, tattooed lengthwise on each cheek and aged with lines crossways as deep and sharp as anything he could cut with a fine engraving gouger. The shaman’s other eye was an empty socket, lost to a bear, which the shaman had considered an honourable loss. On his forehead was the deerskin band covering his third eye, which he said was also blind, but which none of the Czechs had seen. He fought and shouted if anyone touched it. Mutz pushed the band up over the dead man’s scalp. The third eye was a swelling on his forehead, bone hard under flesh, with a picture of an eye tattooed on it. The tattoo was old, and deformed, as if it had been bestowed on the shaman when he was still young and the bone lump had yet to grow. Over it someone had made a recent, cruder tattoo, cut with a knife point. It was a word: LIAR.

They carried the shaman to the building in his own coat. As they passed through the rain the alcohol stink faded and they smelled wet rusting iron. They laid him down on the tiles at the foot of the stairs. Balashov was waiting there. He cried out to God when he saw the corpse.

“Was he stabbed?” he said.
“Why do you think he was stabbed?” said Mutz. “Sometimes outlaws come in from the forest. Convicts with

out a home. Men who have become like beasts.”
“Have you any reason to think there’s a convict in Yazyk

now?”

Balashov shook his head.
“You don’t sell spirit in your store, do you?” said Mutz.

“Respected lieutenant, as you know, this is a dry town. Our beliefs.”

“Yes, your obscure beliefs. Not even for medicinal purposes?”

“Are they so obscure?”
“Obscure. Yes. All I know is you don’t use the church, you

believe in God, you don’t drink or eat meat, you always find a way to turn a straight question, and we never see your children.” “Turkestan,” murmured Balashov. “We sent them to Turkestan in a special train, you know . . . while the troubles.” He rubbed his mouth and ran his hand through his hair as he looked down at the dead man. “Who would give him spirits? Perhaps they didn’t mean to hurt him. Only to be kind to another unfortunate.”

“What are you doing out after curfew? I don’t mind, you understand, but you might have been shot.”

“I was visiting friends on the edge of town. I wanted to see you. I’m afraid Anna Petrovna is in danger. I wanted to ask if you would send some men to guard her house tonight.” He nodded at the shaman. “Poor man. Something new and unpleasant has entered our town.”

“What makes you think Anna Petrovna is in danger?” “God told me. One of the Tungus will come to fetch the

shaman’s body. You should put him in a cold cellar meantime. But please, I implore you, send a soldier to watch Anna Petrovna’s house.”

“I’ll go,” said Mutz. “Come with me.”
“No!” said Balashov loudly. When he said it, for an instant,

another man entered his face and looked out of it, as different from the familiar Balashov as a wound is from a scar. “No,” he said more quietly, the other man spinning down to nothing. A smile opened and closed and he put his hands on the lieutenant’s sleeve. He said: “Anna Petrovna won’t allow me – has asked me not to approach the house on account of a longstanding disagreement between us. She’s a good woman, she’s respectable and honest, with a young son, she’s a widow, widowed in the war. But you know her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Mutz.
“You know what a good woman she is.”
“Yes. She is.” Mutz watched Balashov’s smile coming and going, then a fit of blinking and a frown as a memory came forward. “You put her face on your money,” said Balashov.

“Yes,” said Mutz. “It was a mistake. I should have asked her first. She was upset. I saw her at the gate, watching us when we first came into town. I remembered her face. Faces stay with me. Well, I’ll go there, anyway. Go home now.”

Balashov thanked him and left. Mutz and Broucek enclosed the shaman in two sacks and carried him down to a dank, chilly basement storeroom, where they laid him on a bed of straw and smashed crates, in a greater nest of junk, broken furniture and rusted metal parts. Mutz was used to seeing the dead look uninhabited, husks of life, but the shaman looked like something else. Preoccupied, perhaps. As if he truly believed in what he said he could do, walk in the spirit world, and had died focusing on the last big jump there. All he had ever done was to turn his dreams into words. What else was there? It was when people tried to turn their dream words to deeds that things became difficult. Something new and unpleasant. Mutz had never seen Balashov lie so perilously before. “I’m going to join Nekovar for a while,” said Mutz. “You go to Anna Petrovna’s. I“ll see you there later.”

Broucek smiled and nodded.
“Do you like her?” asked Mutz, feeling a sudden churning in

his guts. Broucek grinned and shrugged. “She’s nice,” he said. “Don’t talk to her,” said Mutz. He wondered if Broucek could

see his face changing colour by the light of the lamp. “I’m ordering you, understand? See she’s all right, wait for me outside her door, and leave her alone.”

Broucek looked hurt and embarrassed. He nodded again and trotted up the stairs.


THE PEOPLE’S ACT OF LOVE
Canongate, £12.99
pp 400: ISBN 18419566546

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