Book of Kings
John Zogby May 2, 2020
I have finished this magisterial book and spent a few days thinking about it. I did not say 'I finished reading' because I did so much more than that. I lived it. The stories, the individual main characters, the wars on the ground in all their brutality and tragedy, the loves gained and lost in their hearts and minds. James, you have not only presented us with history from a bird's eye view but also you have gotten me inside the minds of real people who interacted with the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.
A relatively minor character notes at the end of the novel when he wants a leading protagonist to continue on with the story of his experiences: 'No (don't stop) the story is astounding-- a parable of conscience'. Even though we experience the leading figures as young men and women in Paris from 1932, we live their lives as well. Just as well, because the real book is about you and me. We all face dilemmas and crises of conscience in our lives but certainly not of the magnitude of those faced by Johann, David, Justin, and Duncan. As young men they were confronted with moral choices that involved survival or death -- and not just for themselves but for millions. And their choices not only represented simply the concepts of good and evil, but the reality and embodiment of evil vs simply imperfection.
As we experience the brutality of evil, we are left to constantly ask the question, 'What would I have done?' Then we are constantly facing the uncomfortable answer, 'I don't know'. We would all like to think we would be heroes -- the purity of philosophical thinking, the positioning of ourselves to kill a dictator and his leadership, and the need to simply go home and defeat an imperial power. But these choices involved so many other people (included family, lovers, friends from decades past, and thousands of innocents). We simply do not know.
None of our characters is really a super-hero. They are all broken, just like you and me. All of this makes the experience more personal. The Book of Kings has been compared to War and Peace and at times feels like The Red Badge of Courage. But Thackara has brought us inside minds and through the senses of several men and women over a much broader geography and wartime experience.
It is a really stunning experience.
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