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Book of Kings

The Economist Review

The Economist June 26, 1999

James Thackara’s novel has taken him 25 years to write. The manuscript has been pared down, but it is still 773 pages long. “The Book of Kings” (Overlook Press; $28.95) is in every way a big book. It is also a great work, albeit with a weak ending.

The title alludes to the Old Testament (and God’s) prophetic warning to Samuel about the rise of man-made kings; and the guiding forces that shape the work are Hitler, above all, and also Stalin. In 1932, four students at the Sorbonne share an apartment on the rue de Fleurus in Paris. David von Sunda and Johannes Godard are both German but otherwise utterly different. Justin Lothaire is a poor but ambitious French-Algerian scholarship student, while Duncan Penn appears to be just another American trust-fund baby with a hazy yet seemingly umbilical attachment to “old” Europe. As Walter Pater, a 19th-century aesthete, believed: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” Not for this quartet the mundane preoccupations (grant applications, shabby digs) common to most students today; every breath drawn by Mr Thackara’s young men has some significance. Their lives, over the 40 years of the mid-century, range across Europe, Russia, and even South America, taking in the very worst the century had on offer: Nazi horrors, Soviet oppression, war defeat, concentration camps, long society dinners, silently bitter marriages and sad unrequited loves.

Mr Thackara has Tolstoy’s talent for painting the grand with small brush strokes. Two of the most sweeping scenes are an account of the German breakthrough in Sedan in 1940 and an escape by train across Russia at the very moment of the German invasion in the course of which David von Sunda’s heir is born. “Between [his wife’ legs] David saw something blotted and pink-rimmed with black like the mouth of a large fish...and buried deep in the fish’s throat, what looked like a huge egg matted with black feathers.” Both set pieces are crowded with detail that in lesser hands than Mr Thackara’s might bog the book down. Instead, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, it is the details that bring the grand sweeps of writing to life.

Two of the four central characters seem to be there only for the ride: Johannes, the brilliant philosopher with hardly a toe on the ground, let alone both feet, is seduced by the trappings of Nazism and comes inevitably to a bad end. Even more fleeting is the presence of Duncan, the rich though kindly American, who is crushed by a tank on the first day of the Bulge offensive. Their (relatively) brief appearances, however, only underscore the depth and complexity of the other two and the woman they never quite share but whom neither can forget. Von Sunda, the scion of an old Prussian family, is hijacked into the Nazi regime. Lothaire, clearly based on Albert Camus, is driven, first by a schoolmaster and then by his own ambition, to leave for mainland France.

Both are tormented men. Von Sunda never forgives himself for failing to assassinate Hitler when he had the chance and Lothaire, although he becomes a great Resistance hero, never forgets that he abandoned his homeland and the first woman he loved. Therein lies the novel’s central attraction. Mr Thackara principle preoccupation is a moral one. His first novel, “America’s Children” was a lightly fictionalised life of Robert Oppenheimer, who built the first atomic bomb and tried to remain morally true to himself. How could he, is the central question? In “The Book of Kings”, von Sunda and Lothaire are never allowed to forget missed opportunities and calls unheeded: the question is, how could he not? Moral writing is not fashionable. Nor are grand, overarching sentences, sweeping panoramas, troubled aristocrats and less than holy colonial victims. If your taste is for the lean and the spare, this is not the novel for you. But there are many, like this reviewer, who will turn the last page only to start reading the book once more.

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