Book of Kings
London Times Review
THE LONDON TIMES October 18, 2000 Malcolm
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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