Long waits and short explosions

<i>The Book of Kings</i> by James Thackara (Duckworth, &pound;19.99, 773pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Great war novels are probably the most difficult of all fictional endeavours. How does one create memorable characters who can hold their own amid the spectacular carnage and mayhem? Either the battles will feature as "noises off" or the heroes and heroines will be overwhelmed by the historical drama. Even Tolstoy's War and Peace has its longueurs, with Pierre, Natasha, Rostov and the rest often dwarfed by the Napoleonic canvas.

Great war novels are probably the most difficult of all fictional endeavours. How does one create memorable characters who can hold their own amid the spectacular carnage and mayhem? Either the battles will feature as "noises off" or the heroes and heroines will be overwhelmed by the historical drama. Even Tolstoy's War and Peace has its longueurs, with Pierre, Natasha, Rostov and the rest often dwarfed by the Napoleonic canvas.

To my knowledge, only Emile Zola's La Débâcle, the classic of the Franco-Prussian War, really succeeds in integrating fictional personalities with history. So it is no surprise that James Thackara's monumental novel of the Second World War must be judged a failure. The book has wonderful moments, but they are moments only.

The author takes an unconscionable time to hit his stride. A good editor would have severely pruned the first 300 pages, which contain a lot of intellectual throat-clearing, and insisted that Thackara begin in 1939. The book takes forever to get airborne, the literary equivalent of a 550-seat super-jumbo taking three miles to clear the runway. Then Thackara sets himself a mission impossible by attempting to encompass the totality of the war from six different European vantage-points, rather as if Tolstoy had thrown in English and Prussian main characters as well.

The six main characters are three Germans, a Frenchwoman, a Hungarian actress and an Algerian pied-noir, a kind of fictionalised Albert Camus. All six manage to marry the wrong people, and this botched La Ronde is presumably meant to be some sort of metaphor for the international chaos. But the turmoil of nations cannot adequately be conveyed, even symbolically, through a protagonist's prise de conscience, and this is the central failing of the novel.

An allied problem is that we do not really care about these characters and their fate. Thackara compounds this by presenting their relationships in an oblique, quasi-Jamesian way and giving them remarkably stilted dialogue. Much of it sounds as if translated from German - which is presumably the intention in at least half the instances - but this device does not work and simply wearies the reader. At this level, the novel is inferior not just to Solzhenitsyn's The Red Wheel, which shares many of Thackara's faults, but even to Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance. But since Gore Vidal assures us that Wouk is a better writer of prose than Solzhenitsyn, this maybe not as harsh a criticism as it sounds.

As a writer of prose, Thackara can be overblown and portentous. There are too many echoes of others - here a Thomas Mann, there a James, everywhere a Tolstoy. In particular, I do not care for his tendency towards the facile-hyperbolic. One example will show what I mean. Describing a voyage across the Pacific from Mexico to Japan in early 1941, he writes: "In the South Pacific, invisible Japanese, English and American warships sniffed each other's positions and feinted among the archipelagos of paradise."

Even if we leave on one side the sensuous confusion involved in invisible ships sniffing each other and the laziness of "archipelagos of paradise," as a matter of fact this does not stand up. The only significant archipelagos in the South Pacific are either the Society Islands or Tuamotu and there was no such naval activity in either in early 1941; the war with Japan was always overwhelmingly in the North Pacific.

Yet there are certainly many fine things in this book: the war- fighting set pieces, especially those in Russia during the "Great Patriotic War"; an evocative description of a tuna hunt broken up by the incursion of a whale; a harrowing childbirth sequence on the trans-Siberian railway; and most of all Thackara's wonderful, poetic and poignant two-page epilogue, which is so good that it shows up most of what has gone before.

This book is to the novel what Heaven's Gate is to the movies. Inside Cimino's cinematic mastodon was an essentially brilliant film struggling to get out. With proper editing, both works could have been superb, but whereas much of Cimino's excess was dumped on the cutting-room floor, Thackara's editors have insisted on including all the out-takes. The Book of Kings is a failure, but a noble failure. One is left admiring the author's ambition and scope and yearning for the half-glimpsed book that might have been.

Frank McLynn's new book, 'Villa and Zapata', is published by Cape

Comments