Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1952
The Book of Kings is obviously modeled after Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and has been compared by most reviewers, favorably and unfavorably, with that Russian masterpiece. In one scene, James Thackara even pays homage to the man author Ivan Turgenev called “the great writer of the Russian people” when Lieutenant David Sunda visits Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, while participating in Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Like War and Peace, Thackara’s novel begins with the threat of war looming in the distance. Adolf Hitler rises from being a ruthless, virulently anti-Semitic demagogue to an elected German chancellor who crushes all domestic opposition and finally unleashes the struggle for world domination he publicly warned about in his book, Mein Kampf (1943).
As in War and Peace, Thackara focuses on a small cast of contrasting characters whose lives are changed by what Tolstoy termed “the irresistible tide of history” and through whose eyes the reader views history. In keeping with his model, Thackara does not cover the entire global struggle. He pays scant attention to the Battle of Britain, the submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean, the war in the Pacific Ocean, the seesaw struggle for control of North Africa, and the invasion of Italy. He does not even mention the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Japan. Rather, his emphasis, like that of Tolstoy, is on the Soviet Union. Thackara is at his best in his description of Hitler’s unprovoked assault on the hated communist empire, an audacious venture that mirrored Napoleon I’s invasion of Czarist Russia in 1812 and humiliating defeat by the incredibly cold weather, the awesome size of the country, and the dogged resistance of the people.
David Sunda, the book’s most prominent character, is a Prussian aristocrat whose lineage traces back a thousand years. Sunda resembles Tolstoy’s Prince Andrey Bolkonsky in courage, impeccable manners, and noble bearing. When the novel opens in 1932, he is a student at the Sorbonne, sharing an apartment with three other young students. Justin Lothaire, the second most important character, is of mixed French and Algerian blood. Lothaire, who only escaped a wretched existence in the Casbah because of his intellect, attends the famous French university on a scholarship. His French blood and French education motivate him to join the French Resistance, but after the war his Algerian blood and heritage of poverty motivate him to lead the crusade for Algerian independence.
Another German, Johannes Godard, is recognized as one of the great minds of his century, even in his youth. He is destined to become Germany’s leading philosopher, but he is seduced by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels into prostituting his mind to rationalize terrorism, racism, imperialism, and genocide in publications and radio broadcasts.
The fourth student is Duncan Penn. He disappears for most of the book and reemerges as an American Army officer who participates in the invasion of Italy and is later killed by a tank in the Battle of the Bulge. Both Godard and Penn had more important roles in Thackara’s original manuscript but have suffered from the radical editing the novelist was forced to accept to get his book published.
In The New Yorker in 1997, before the novel had found a publisher, John Walsh describes Thackara’s unusual personality, his twenty-year struggle to write his book and get it published, and his tempestuous relationships with surprisingly sympathetic agents and editors. According to Walsh:
Thackara talks in a crazed, spilling, omni-cultural, polymathic flood of ideas, allusions, quotations, titles, breezy historical loops, and airily summarized philosophical cruxes—in such a way that the cowed and humbled listener can do little more than grab a corner and hang on.
The Book of Kings sounds very much like its author. He has been described as a Thomas Wolfe without a Maxwell Perkins. He has a penchant for far-fetched and often questionable aperçus. One could consider, for instance, the following: “The girl’s voice had the throaty texture of Mediterraneans who have drunk wine in their infancy.” His similes, which often “out-Proust” Marcel Proust, best typify the author and his melodramatic masterpiece. Here are a few that escaped the editors’ scalpels and helped make Walsh wonder whether The Book of Kings “is the work of a visionary genius or an over-educated fraud”:
He [Hitler] was like some starved and brutalized watchdog, chained to history, who barks hysterically at any approach of pity.
[The young German officers’] lean souls gleamed through their cold eyes like foils glimpsed in the polite depths of an antiques shop.
Now, as a disarmed and half-starved gladiator might lure an untested comrade to face a still-murderous lion—and as, stumbling against one another they might hang back in the corner farthest from this monster, caked with the blood of multitudes—so, that season, did Churchill bring Roosevelt into the arena of Europe, that he might face the German dictator.
Thackara’s novel achieved wide notoriety even before publication because of his flamboyant personality and audacious plan to outperform Tolstoy by describing a much bigger war. Thackara had several agents who managed to interest editors in his manuscript, but all insisted on “radical surgery.” Walsh quotes one editor as saying: “I’ve never met anyone with such a grand concept of his place in the scheme of things and in the traditions of literature. The most passionate and driven writer you can think of isn’t half as passionate and driven as James.”
The novel, which was originally about the length of War and Peace, is half the size of Tolstoy’s masterpiece in its hard covers but still looks imposing in the somber black-and-white dust jacket.
All four young students are in love with beautiful Hélène Le Trève, who comes from an upper-class French family. She marries Sunda, but the true love of her life is the Heathcliff-like Lothaire, whose ambition is to use his French education as a weapon against the French. He becomes the principal writer in a leftist Parisian journal, which goes underground when Hitler conquers France’s Grand Armée in the Blitzkrieg that shocked the world. Le Trève and Sunda have gone to Mexico to avoid the war. As an aristocrat, Sunda has nothing but contempt for Hitler and his paramilitary street hoodlums. He bears such a prestigious name, however, that he cannot escape the Nazis and is ordered to return to Germany and join the army or see his family estate confiscated and his parents ruined.
Because of the U-boat menace in the Atlantic, he and his pregnant wife return by the longest possible route, crossing the Pacific Ocean to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union and then traveling by train all the way across the country. Le Trève has her first child aboard the jolting train. Thackara’s description of her delivery recalls Tolstoy’s description of pretty little Liza Bolkonsky’s ordeal in War and Peace. Le Trève even conveys the same messages with her facial expressions, as she seems to be saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” With their infant in tow, the Sundas barely manage to make it to the Turkish frontier before Hitler unleashes his millions of soldiers and thousands of tanks against the Soviets.
When Sunda becomes a lieutenant in the German army and is sent to the Soviet front, he is horrified by the atrocities he witnesses. He becomes part of a conspiracy of German officers to assassinate Hitler but has to bide his time. Just as Tolstoy’s idealistic Pierre Bezuhov thinks it is his destiny to kill Napoleon, Sunda begins to believe it is his destiny to kill Hitler. Eventually, he can no longer participate in the crimes against humanity. He tries rather foolishly to make his way back across the Soviet Union on foot in winter but eventually finds himself a prisoner, along with hordes of others destined to be worked to death in concentration camps. Having exchanged his uniform for warmer civilian clothing, he is not recognized as a German deserter. The reader is reminded of Bezuhov’s ordeal in War and Peace after being captured by the French and nearly dying of cold and hunger as a prisoner during Napoleon’s famous retreat from blazing Moscow. With the help of another prisoner, Sunda manages to escape.
Thackara’s descriptions of the war in the east, the atrocities against soldiers and civilians, the clash of great modern armies, the struggle for existence in a concentration camp, and the even more horrible plight of captured Russian soldiers display his strength as a writer. He obviously has a brilliant, if eccentric, mind and has read exhaustively. He resembles many writers, including Tolstoy; Stendhal; Romain Rolland, especially in the hyperbole in his famous novel Jean-Christophe (1913); Albert Camus; Thomas Wolfe; Stephen Crane, who based The Red Badge of Courage (1895) on reading and vivid imagination; Herman Melville; William Faulkner; and even Ernest Hemingway.
The Book of Kings is divided into three parts, with many subdivisions as short as half a page, making the work seem pointillistic. Part 1 corresponds to the period Winston Churchill covered inThe Gathering Storm (1948). Part 2 covers the war itself, and Part 3 covers the aftermath. Here, Lothaire takes center stage. His role in the book seems to have been mainly to dramatize the effect of World War II, which was to destroy the glamour, the rationalization, and the economic feasibility of empire building. The Germans and Japanese, after all, were only imitating the British and French. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two superpowers guaranteed colonialism’s doom. The British, French, Dutch, Belgians, and Portuguese could not afford to maintain it, the Soviet Union would not tolerate it, and the United States would not support it. Lothaire is a leader in the Algerian struggle for independence, but his vision goes far beyond. He wants to see all colonies freed from European domination and considers Algeria an example for all exploited peoples to follow.
Both Sunda’s and Le Trève’s aristocratic families are ruined by the war. In the aftermath, Sunda takes it upon himself to restore their fortunes by building a cattle empire in Brazil. In Faulknerian prose, Thackara describes the German aristocrat’s indomitable will, which inspires hundreds of ignorant natives to love, hate, and fear their master while hacking a road through the mosquito- and snake-infested jungle, building a rustic mansion, and clearing the land to pasture hundreds of thousands of cattle.
To do Thackara justice, it must be recognized that his epic would not have seemed so flawed if he had not been forced to accept drastic cuts in the publishing process. He intended to paint a bigger mural of World War II and to give Godard and Penn more important roles. In the shortened version, there is much confusion, as there was in the financially disastrous film Heaven’s Gate(1981), which editors hacked to pieces to turn miles of footage into a marketable feature-length film. Thackara reluctantly submitted to cutting his book by about one-third, then had to endure the criticism of a book that no longer represents his original conception. The reader is also reminded of Hemingway’s heavily symbolic The Old Man and the Sea (1952), in which the old fisherman brings back the mutilated carcass of the great fish he caught in the shark-infested Caribbean. What is most impressive about The Book of Kings is the grandeur of the author’s vision.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1104.
The Economist 351 (June 26, 1999): 99.
Library Journal 124 (May 1, 1999): 113.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 2, 1999): 10.
Publishers Weekly 246 (March 8, 1999): 49.
The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 1999, p. W7.
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