The Vengeance of Rome, by Michael Moorcock

Crimes of a century
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The Independent Culture

"My achievements are a matter of history," raves the narrator and protagonist of The Vengeance of Rome. "I am the voice and conscience of civilised Europe. I am one of the great inventors of my age. I am a child of the century and as old as the century." The Kiev-born Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski - "Colonel Pyat" - is also, by his own account, a master architect, the former star of two popular 1920s Hollywood movie franchises, a spokesman for the Ku-Klux-Klan, an inmate of Dachau, an intimate of some of the greatest (and most notorious) figures of the 20th century and a key player in many of its most crucial events. So how did he end up as the impecunious proprietor of The Spirit of St Petersburg, a shabby second-hand clothing shop in Ladbroke Grove?

Pyat is the most unreliable narrator in the fiction of the past half-century; the dustbin of history on legs. A racist, a bigot, a fanatical Slav nationalist forever ranting of the glories of Byzantium and its need for unceasing vigilance against the malign forces of Carthage (by which he means Jews, Muslims and all of Africa), a paedophile, a cocaine addict, a man for whom the distinction between lying and self-delusion has long since eroded, an eternal betrayer... Pyat is so consistent, so much of a piece, so relentless in his repulsiveness, that the reader ends up reluctantly saluting his indefatigability, as well as that of Michael Moorcock, his Boswell, who has been labouring over Pyat's four-volume autobiography for a quarter-century.

The Vengeance of Rome has been flagged as "in preparation" in other Moorcock books since 1992. Its publication draws to a close a world-spanning sequence of novels, set in the first four decades of the previous century, that commenced in 1981 with Byzantium Endures and includes The Laughter of Carthage and Jerusalem Endures. Pyat has been knocking around Moorcock's multiverse for quite some time, making his first major appearance in 1977 in The English Assassin, the third in the Cornelius Quartet which climaxed in The Condition of Muzak. However, enjoyment of the series is not dependent on intimate familiarity with Moorcock's science-fantasy work, or even on being aware that he wrote SF at all.

The concept of the multiverse - defined elsewhere by Moorcock as "a multitude of alternate universes intersecting sometimes with our own" and "an infinite number of slightly different versions of reality" - has allowed him to shuffle characters and motifs between his "genre" and literary work, with the Cornelius Quartet as the fulcrum between the two. Thus the Pyat who narrates this tale is the broken-down drinking companion of Mrs Cornelius, whom we find in The Condition of Muzak, but his fantasies of giant airships and steam-cars are the alternate future of the Oswald Bastable sequence, which satirises Victorian imperialist thrillers.

The most jaw-dropping tour de force of this novel occurs when circumstances compel Pyat (at this point a former emissary of Mussolini, installed in the villa of his friend and lover, SA head honcho Ernst Röhm) to don drag to replace Hitler's Awol dominatrix. Thus "I raise my left leg and bring the red spike heel down between Hitler's naked shoulder blades... I piss in Hitler's mouth... I shit in Hitler's eyes". It is not surprising there is hardly anywhere for the story to go after that, but then it is not the story which is fascinating but the character of Pyat himself.

As long ago as the opening page of Byzantium Endures, Pyat vented his fury at being forever mistaken for a Jew ("The great Cossack hawk's beak is frequently mistaken in the West for the carrion bill of the vulture") by Jew and anti-Semite alike. As the triumph of fascism looms (with Pyat's enthusiastic support), this theme begins to dominate the novel. It sets the scene for Pyat's final betrayal, an act so monstrous that it dwarfs any of his previous perfidies.

Moorcock's best-known characters are Jerry Cornelius and Elric of Melnibone; his best-loved Jerry's frowsty, formidable mum, who crops up throughout the Pyat quartet in a far more glamorous incarnation. On this evidence, however, it is Colonel Pyat who is the richest, the deepest, the most complex, and who casts the strongest and most penetrating light on the century we erroneously believe we have left behind.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published by Faber