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Book of Kings

London Times Review

THE LONDON TIMES October 18, 2000 Malcolm Bradbury

Americans enjoy ambitious novels dealing with major themes. Small wonder that - at nearly 800 pages and dealing with the grim history of Europe from the Depression through the dark age of Nazi warfare and holocaust - The Book of Kings became a sensation when it appeared last year in the USA. There was a feeling that a significant new storyteller had emerged; critics hailed the book with comparisons to Tolstoy. It will doubtless enjoy similar success in this country, where the American-born, much travelled author lives.

The grand comparisons are generous but not unfair. The Book of Kings is strikingly powerful, in some ways wonderfully old-fashioned but none the worse for that. It revives the form's classic power to chronicle history and society, manners, morals, politics, family dynasties and human anxieties, to move from individual to general, from the intense emotions of daily living to the sweeping forces of the world. As in Tolstoy or Mann, those great historical and burgher novelists, individual lives become romantic instances of destiny and history, each performing an office in the onward drift of the greater world.

Thackara’s story begins in Paris in 1932; four brilliant, idealistic, well-placed students at the Sorbonne - two Germans, a half-caste French Algerian, a rich American - share an apartment in Montparnasse. Two are central to the entire story: David von Sunda, the dissident son of a great German baronial family, and Justin Lothaire, an Algerian come to Paris with literary ambitions which will eventually make him “the greatest writer of the age”. They become rivals for the same women, and remain so for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile an Austrian army corporal, who sees in himself a Napoleonic ability to master history and create a new 1000-year Aryan empire, comes to power in Berlin.
The brilliance of the novel lies in its sense of place and scene, its geographical and historical reach, its capacity to present the citadels and bunkers of power and, above all, its scenes of war. Von Sunda serves in a German tank regiment; Lothaire, already distinguished as a writer, joins the maquis.

The other German, Johannes Godard, an unworthy philosopher, teaches at the University of Berlin - until, lured by a Wagnerian opera singer, he signs a pact with the Devil. Duncan Penn joins the US Army and returns to Europe for the Battle of the Bulge. In sweeping scenes, the horrific age of Nazism, its camps and battlefields, unfolds.

The sudden blitzkrieg across the Meuse in 1940, Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941, the moment of hesitation in front of Moscow that lost Hitler the war, the German retreats, the plots against the Fuhrer, the collapse of Germany, the growing realisation of genocide and moral disaster - all are wonderfully recreated with a knowing sense of history.

Meshed in this are the four lives. Von Sunda, returning to Germany under Nazi compulsion in 1941, finds himself a conspirator against Hitler, then a prisoner in a concentration camp, then a survivor in the capitalist world after the war. Lothaire becomes a leading figure in the Resistance and survives the war to take up the cause of Algerian liberation.

At moments the plot relies on coincidence, the psychology is unconvincing, the romantic idealism of the characters excessive, the prose overdone. No matter. If the book’s pleasures are old-fashioned, it knows and judges the world and is a largely successful achievement

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