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The great DICTATOR; Michael Emery reviews two important new publications, one a novel and, below, the other non-fiction, about Nazi Germany.

Byline: Michael Emery

As one for whom the modern novel holds little appeal, perhaps I was not the right person to review a new novel that has been compared to Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Post-modern, post-colonial or ironic I generally find these works lack narrative breadth, have flimsy characterisation and are little more than extended magazine articles in length.

Honourable exceptions would be the novels of Howard Jacobson and Moseley's Jim Crace, an original voice who is revered in America but who sells few books here.

To this small list must now be added the name of James Thackara, whose Book of Kings (Duckworth, pounds 19.99) is an epic work by modern standards at 773 pages.

Yet the relentless drive of his narrative, the strong characterisation and his acute understanding of the human condition keep you turning the pages.

It is a mightily involving work and it is easy to see why it has been acclaimed as a literary sensation in America and is now being translated throughout Europe.

The book covers the rise of fascism in Europe from 1932, Hitler's invasion of Russia, the role of the French resistance in fighting the Nazis, the siege of Berlin, the Algerian Civil War and the student gorilla movements of the late 1960s.

Thackara cannot be accused of lacking ambition and all of the above are seen through the eyes of a quartet of students at the Sorbonne in Paris who share an apartment on the Rue de Fleurus.

How these students, two Germans, a French Algerian and an American, are affected by Europe ignoring God's warning to Samuel about man-made kings produces an enthralling narrative and, because of the power and detail in his descriptive writing, Thackara has produced a compelling evocation of what happened when Europe forgot it was the cradle of civilisation.

The fact that Thackara manages to describe in great detail this large chunk of 20th-century history, and do it so convincingly, is surprising as when these seminal events in our history were occurring the author had yet to be born.

The book is not without faults, however. For me there was at times too much of a feel of Hemingway about it, but this is probably inevitable given that much of the book is set amongst the life of the Parisian demi-monde.

This impression is exacerbated by the fact that many of the Parisian scenes are set in Hemingway's favourite Cafe Floret. It also has to be said that dialogue is not one of the author's strengths and that at times it sounds as awkward and discordant as Hemingway's.

Whether as an act of homage or in an attempt to improve upon the original it was perhaps unwise to include a tuna fishing scene of such pretentiousness worthy of inclusion in The Old Man and the Sea.

Nor would Thackara win any awards for writing about sex - unless it was one of Auberon Waugh's 'Bad Sex Awards'.

The following occurs when one of the students, by now Dr Johannus Goddard and Europe's greatest modern philosopher, makes a Faustian pact in which in return for becoming a Nazi propagandist he gets a staggeringly beautiful Wagnerian soprano for his lover.

'Now the timeless landscape of snow lakes, farms and wild flower meadows heaved around Dr Goddard and took on the deformed shapes of delirium. Flames burst from his light and, one by one, smoke rose from the spirit shrines of men. Strange mountains emerged tipped with blood, flames of white undulating mud, stinking chasms, with bridges that tightened and leapt, dark tunnels, dangerous with internal gales and cataracts. Across all this unchristened land, Johann's sacred light was dashed, scattered and dispersed to sprinkle down upon an unshakable desolation reigned over by the cannibal eyes of that impersonal God who needs no name. And upon this dark and lawless dust, Johann flung himself and grovelled with delight, until all civilisation was consumed.'

Fortunately, Thackara is rather better when describing landscape and the effect is has on the lives of those who live in it.

His portraits of the desolation of the Russian front, the primal nature of France's Jura region and the glories of the Mediterranean summer are particularly impressive.

As is the manner in which he manages to weave Greek mythology, history, politics and philosophy into the narrative without overwhelming the reader or giving the impression that he is trying to show us how clever he is.

That he manages to include all these academic disciplines is because the French Algerian student who becomes a great writer, leads a cell of resistant fighters in the Jura, publishes an underground newspaper and leads the fight for Algeria's independence is obviously based on the life of the iconic French Algerian international Andre Malraux.

Towards the end of his life Malraux renounced politics, having reached the conclusion that friendship and community are all that matter.

This epic yet involving novel reminds us of the dreadful consequences that inevitably occur when politicians ignore Malraux's conclusions.


Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, a devastating parody of Hitler's Nazi Germany
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 25, 2000
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