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Book of Kings

Chicago Tribune Review

CHICAGO TRIBUNE May 23 1999 Al Cheuse

Weighing in at nearly 800 pages and attempting to hold within its grasp all of Europe from the early days of Nazism through the beginning of the 1960s, James Thackara’s new novel is an audacious undertaking. It gives us four main characters, roommates in a Paris student apartment, each with a heavily embroidered story line to follow: David Sunda, a young German aristocrat; Johannes Godard, a passionate German philosophy student; Duncan Penn, an American student; and Justin Lothaire, a half-Arab, half-French Algerian. And the book uses the entire map of Europe, from the Normandy beaches to the city limits of Moscow, with some excursions into Algeria, for its geography. In the plenitude of its material and the breadth of its unfolding, this is a novel we haven’t seen the lies of since Irwin Shaw’s ‘The Young Lions’, although the effectiveness and magnitude of its battle scenes immediately call to mind the vivid presentation of the Pacific theatre in the late fiction of Herman Wouk.

The novel has a framing sequence set in Europe in the 1960s, but this quickly yields to the main narrative, beginning in the early 1930s, when the four attractive and sensitive young men are on the loose in chateaux and castles and, in Lothaire’s case, beneath the wide, pale blue sky of the North African desert, in love with the idea of love, in love with ideas. To get their stories right, as romantic as they are, a novelist would need to take a lot of deep breaths. At its low points, where the texture of the novel runs thin, the deep breath turns to rhetorical exhalation. Lothaire, for example, doesn’t just drop his first big love off at her house. He feels “released” and “alone with the passion of his people and the nameless struggles of all men”. A ship sails out of San Francisco Bay, not just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge but under the “colossus” of the Golden Gate.

These kinds of phrases tip off the reader that Thackara, at his worst, but also at his best, writes in the mode of the sublime romanticist. Many of the major characters don’t just speak - they pronounce in the broad, grand chords of epic declamation, though given the context they sound perfectly believable. Lothaire, for example, who after the Nazi takeover becomes the main voice of the French underground, announces his mission thusly:

“ ‘To reclaim a million minds from Hitler’s hands. To tell a story deeper than history, and to tell it with such heat that torturers recognise themselves.’”

When he lets the story do the work rather than place the burden of meaning on the often-elevated language, Thackara writes extremely effectively. And because of the way that he had digested the history of the Third Reich and dramatised it in these pages, turning Hitler and Himmler and Goering and a number of other major and minor historical figures into characters in this huge work of fiction, he has no peers among American novelists working today. The hundreds of pages of scenes of the Nazis’ war against civilisation are extraordinary in their power. The development of Lothaire from Casbah half-breed into a major Camus-like giant of the age is also fascinating to experience. Sunda’s ordeals in the German tank corps and, later, in a Nazi death camp, are utterly convincing and nearly unbearable to read. His French wife’s tribulations while trying to protect herself and her children from encroaching Nazi suitors will nearly break your heart.

The central 300 pages - focusing on the progress of the war and consolidation of Nazi power, along with the formation of the French Resistance and the horrors of the Russian front - are so powerful that the aftermath, the last 140 pages, seem to pale by comparison. They also go off in a number of distracting directions, as Sunda makes an expedition to a South American jungle, and his son, Alaric, throws in with post-Communist European terrorist. The effect is a bit disconcerting. I felt so worn out by the war that I couldn’t really engage myself with the peace. Maybe Homer had it right, rather than Tolstoy. You either write the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey”, but you don’t presume to put them together in one long story.

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