Book of Kings
Seattle Times Review
THE SEATTLE TIMES May 16 1999 Robert Allen Papinchak
Rich, Complex Novel
James Thackara’s monumental novel
about history, “The Book of Kings”, brings its
own checkered history with it.
An essay by John Walsh in the December 1997 issue of The
New Yorker charted the roller coaster ride of “The Book
of Kings”, Thackara’s third novel, took on the
way to publication. Walsh noted that the book “gestated
for 25 years through a jungle of rewrites and a Hundred Years
War of publishing battles”.
Thackara saw his magnum opus (1470 manuscript pages) accepted
by the Bantam Press United Kingdom for a low six-figure advance
then dropped by the publisher over editorial differences,
then finally picked up by the small Overlook Press for a mid
five figure advance.
Now the book that nobody would publish is the book nobody
should miss reading.
Though offhanded comparisons to “War and Peace”
maybe effusive, they are not completely unwarranted. Like
Tolstoy’s novel, Thackara’s work plays out personal
history against the vast backdrop of world history. It is
a big book (800 pages) with big subjects (politics, art, philosophy,
war, the history of the world) and big themes writ in capital
letters (Truth, Beauty Love).
The story focuses on four main characters, students who
first meet in Paris. It is 1932 when David Sunda, Johannes
Godard, Justin Lothaire and Duncan Penn begin their studies
at the Sorbonne.
David and Johannes share diverse German backgrounds - David’s
baronial family owns Oberlinden, a Bavarian estate. Johannes’
philosophical preoccupations lead him astray of his mother’s
prescient warnings of the rise of Hitler. Justin, half-French,
half Algerian, begins life as the son of a lowly lace maker
before receiving the scholarship which will take him to the
world’s highest rank of respected thinkers.
Duncan, the American, is the least developed of the four
characters. His story receives less narrative attention than
This overwhelmingly rich and complex novel begins when David’s
son Albert, and Duncan’s son James, make a stop at the
Grand Cimetiere de Verdun, the cemetery at the site of the
World War 1 battleground, before meeting the now 60 year old
David aboard a trawler on its way to Cyprus and Tel Aviv.
Albert is estranged from his father - David abandoned his
family for a mistress his children’s age. Learning that
David Sunda knew his father, James pleads with him to tell
The epic-scoped Homeric narrative that follows is David’s
“legend of his time”.
Once the framework for the massive story is established,
the novel effortlessly weaves back and forth from the early
onset of Nazism towards the Holocaust through the whole of
World War II. The time frame covers more than 40 years - from
1924 to the late 60s.
Battle scenes loom large in the violent action of the novel,
but do not overwhelm the story line. The 1940 battle of at
Sedan, the first full scale use of a tank attack and the first
German breakthrough in the invasion of France, is painstakingly
detailed. Between historical episodes, Thackara wedges his
characters' personal stories. Recounts David’s and
his wife’s excruciatingly difficult six month journey
home from Mexico to Vladivostok, then across the breadth of
Russia by rail, a trip that includes the treacherous birth
of their first child, Alaric, delivered aboard the Trans-Siberian
Express. Another, “Maelstrom”, set in 1941, is
a key chapter which underscores the extraordinary scope and
immensity of Thackara’s vision. It includes no fewer
than four indelible episodes of the period: a riotous evening
at the Kit Kat Club (familiar from Christopher Isherwood’s
“I Am A Camera” and the film “Cabaret”);
a futile attempt to stop the heartsickening slaughter of 2000
Russians; the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the eye-wrenching
view of the first extermination camp in Chelmno, Poland.
Thackara’s acknowledged success is the consummate
ability to gracefully mesh the personal with the historical,
to move effortlessly from terrifying scenes of massive devastation
to the tinkling ballroom chandeliers or the redolent smells
of the back alleys of Algiers. If there might have been one
more addition to the novel, a complementary index might have
helped readers return to find characters or scenes in this
To paraphrase poet Robert Browning, a writer’s reach should
exceed his grasp, or what’s a novel for. Thackara more than
grants the reader a worthy investment for time and effort. When
the novel finally returns to the 60s and David’s and the world’s
story has been told, one character declares that the story has been
a “parable of conscience”. But David, the last survivor
of the Sorbonne Four, corrects him and identifies the period as
“a tidal wave of the maimed and incinerated”. Thackara’s
crowning achievement is that he has been able to tell both stories
and tell them well.
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