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...
(The entire section is 1952 words.)