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Book of Kings

San Diego Union Tribune Review

‘SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE May 9, 1999 Kings’ Go Forth. William Murray

The noted American critic Edmund Wilson observed in the early 1950s that it would be impossible to overestimate the influence of movies on the writing of novels. Since that time, television, then in its infancy, has completed the process. Most works of fiction today are written as a series of dramatic scenes concentrating on dialogue and incident, and featuring such cinematic techniques as the jump cut. Very little emphasis is placed on character development and not much space devoted to the sort of physical descriptions that were supposedly made superfluous by the camera.

Our best regarded modern novels are short, tightly written, with a lot of dialogue and action, as opposed to a leisurely progression of events interspersed with long descriptive passages intended to evoke an ambience, a whole society which the story’s principal characters are portrayed against the background that shapes them, as in a great romantic canvas.

With few exceptions (De Lillo’s “Underworld” and Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” come immediately to mind), our best novelists turn out little more than elongated short stories, in which the writer assumes that the reader can picture the setting for himself and concentrates on the action. The longer works are generally turned out by hacks like Grisham, King and Clancy, whose readers are mostly the sort of people who like soap operas.

It is all the more astonishing, therefore, to come across a novel like James Thackara’s “The Book of Kings”, an epic saga of 773 pages that spans several generations and tells the complicated story of four friends whose lives intersect against the setting of a world being overwhelmed by the rise of fascism in Europe and the subsequent war that caused the deaths of more than 50 million people. No tight, lean writing in this book, no cinematic shortcuts attempted. Thackara’s purpose is to paint a canvas so detailed, so full of color and life and large and small events that it will evoke an entire society in conflict while simultaneously dramatising the personal histories of his protagonists - two Germans, an American and an Algerian born Frenchman who become friends as students at the Sorbonne while sharing an apartment on the Left Bank in 1932.

Thackara, however, is not content with current events; he wants us to know who his people are and how they came to be in Paris, so we are also whisked back into childhood occurrences and family backgrounds. In addition, a host of secondary characters, including the women in these men’s lives, are exhaustively portrayed. It’s a bravura effort that largely succeeds, not only because the details are in themselves often fascinating but because the writer has a terrific tale to tell. And he sweeps us up into it with the passion of a great storyteller whose subject is not merely a particular cast of characters but a world in agonising transition.

While not by any means as grand and fully realised an accomplishment as “War and Peace”, the classic against which all such narratives are ultimately measured, “The Book of Kings” is a noble literary achievement, an uncompromisingly honest, often eloquent recounting of a tremendous period in our history. Compared to the events it portrays, even the horrors of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo pale into relative insignificance.

The author’s two most compelling protagonists are David Von Sunda, the scion of a distinguished baronial family in Bavaria, and Justin Lothaire, the Algerian pie-noir. Close friends, they are separated by the war and do not meet again until it is over, by which time too much has happened to them to become even friendly acquaintances again. David has served in the Wehmacht on the Russian front, participated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, deserted, been imprisoned in a concentration camp and emerged from the conflict impoverished and spiritually wounded. Justin, who is clearly modelled on Albert Camus, has become a famous
novelist, editor and contributor to Justice, an underground newspaper during the Nazi occupation of France, and an international celebrity as well as a hero of the Resistance.

Though the two men are essentially united by their love of liberty and their attempts to remain civilised citizens of the world, their relationship is further complicated by the fact that David’s French wife, Helene, has always been in love with Justin. Their tragedy is that not even the closest relationship can survive the passions of the flesh or the ruthless march of historical events. And the terrible human compromises they impose. The novel’s weakest pages are those in which the novelist attempts to delve into the intricacies of love and sexual passion. To his credit he spares the anatomical details favoured by the pop novelists, but relies instead on a heavy use of metaphor that occasionally borders on the absurd. When Johann, one of Thackara’s protagonists, seduces a Wagnerian soprano, his “sacred light was dashed, scattered and dispersed to sprinkle down on an unslakable desolation reigned over by the cannibal eyes of that impersonal God who needs no name. And upon this dark and lawless dust, Johann flung himself and grovelled with delight, until all civilisation was consumed.” Well, you get the idea.

Luckily, Thackara doesn’t waste much time on sex; he has a lot more on his mind than the cavortings of the flesh. His finest pages are those in which he deals with large world events, and he has a genius for conveying the feel of military action. Like Stendhal in “The Charterhouse of Parma”, he writes about war and battles from the view of the people caught up on them. One of his best secondary characters is a real historical figure, Heinz Guderian, the German general whose skill at tank warfare was instrumental in crushing the French and British resistance on the western front in the spring of 1940. Thackara spirits the reader into the heart of the action, makes us feel the terror, anguish and confusion of warfare on such a grand scale. No matter how complex the action, he describes it in personal terms, as if it could be happening to us:

“Harsh voices screamed commands. Engines roared, and there was the purposeful clatter of heavy breeches being worked. And suddenly across the German heights and the French river position below, many thousands of men were conscious that the pummelling of their ears had stopped. In the command dugout Guderian lowered his binoculars, glanced at his watch, and looked up at the sun moving behind a single fleecy cloud.

‘Now’, he said, his voice strangely polite in the immense silence.”

I emerged reluctantly from “The Book of Kings”, as one does from a vivid, passionate dream, wanting it to go on and on.

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