James Thackara's The Book of Kings
(773 pages, no price listed) is famous for being one of this decade's better known unpublished works of fiction. Its 1999 publication by The Overlook Press marks a capitulation of sorts-the author being notorious for his reluctance to work with the editors appointed by the various publishers who have, over the years, accepted, only to eventually drop, the book. A story in The New Yorker
signalled the peak of Thackara's celebrity as an expatriate American genius who had written an immense, Tolstoian novel about Europe and the Second World War, but whose personality made it unlikely the book would ever make it into the public domain. The author has two other, largely unknown, books under his belt; their lacklustre reputation did little to tarnish his legend.
With such unproven expectations, the book was doomed to disappoint. And disappoint it does. Thackara is a sensitive moralist, and he is capable of penning extraordinary prose; but The Book of Kings is a pretentious, ponderous, and inept attempt at writing the definitive epic of the twentieth century.
The Book of Kings tells Europe's story from fascism's rise in 1934 to the failed revolutions, communist totalitarianism, and capitalist oppression of the 1960s. The author creates four exemplary characters: Justin Lothaire, an Algerian intellectual, writer, and revolutionary loosely based on Albert Camus; Baron David von Sunda, the preferred son of a German aristocrat; Johannes Godard, a self-absorbed philosopher who is equal parts Goethe and Faust, with dashes of Kant and Hegel tossed in for good measure; and Duncan Penn, an American industrialist who seems to have vanished from the book in the editorial process. The four men share a Paris apartment during their student days at the Sorbonne, marry the wrong women, and are carried around the world to witness key events of the Second World War.
Thackara has a talent for close moral examination. Its treatments of the relationship between the German people and their government, and of the muddled problems arising from collaboration, treason, and resistance in occupied France are excellent. Unfortunately, these strong qualities are negated by Thackara's incompetence in the storytelling department. Subtlety is lost on him, and he tends to drape any symbol or epiphany in garish, obtrusive signposts. Near the end of the novel, he shamelessly informs the reader that Baron von Sunda's life is a "universal parable that he carried in the codes of his soul." On page five, he unblushingly tells us (through a conveniently placed newspaper clipping) that "Lothaire became a legend, which in turn was the symbol of an age." A novelist who owes his most interesting character to Camus and has learned nothing from his hero cannot help but botch a project of this scope. He even has the gall to locate a key plot point on the grave of Tolstoy!
The Book of Kings is distinguished by a few fragments of excellent writing. Thackara is very good when he becomes wholly absorbed in a single action-whether it is a child's excursion in pre-war Algeria, a desperate attempt to repulse a German attack, or the chaos of a concentration camp. While the novel has a great deal to say about the moral turmoil of the Second World War, its wisdom is buried under enough dross to discourage all but the most determined reader.
Jack Illingworth is currently doing graduate work in English and Creative Writing at Concordia in Montreal.