Friday 15 November 2013

Book Review | The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.

But there must always be an account... and the past has a habit of catching up to the present.

Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism — a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields — to answer one last, impossible question: what makes a hero?


Lavie Tidhar has a theory about superheroes. About what they are and what they represent; about where they come from and why we hardly ever see any British ones. These are questions the author asks and answers on various occasions over the course of his indescribably demanding if accordingly rewarding new novel, though Tidhar's particular position is best encapsulated by the testimony given by a fictionalised version of Joseph Shuster — the co-creator of Superman alongside Jerry Siegel, who also appears — during the trial of Dr. Vomacht, the Nazi scientist whose cavalier prodding of probability resulted in The Violent Century's so-called Übermenschen.

Note that the following quote comes from near the end of the novel, but know, moreover, that The Violent Century plays so fast and loose with clarity and linearity that this is as fitting a fashion as any I can imagine to start talking about a book so bleak and mysterious that any resulting discussion of it is destined to be difficult.
— I specialise in... in a form of dynamic portraiture. [...] Of the changed. Of Beyond-Men. And women. Of... for lack of a better word, Shuster says, I like to think my work focuses on heroes.
— But what's a hero? the counsellor says, again.
— It seems to me, Shuster says, it seems to me... you must understand, I think, yes, you need to first understand what it means to be a Jew.
— I think I have some experience in that, the counsellor for the defence says drily — which draws a few laughs from the audience. On the stand, Schuster coughs. His eyes, myopic behind the glasses, assume a dreamy look. Those of us who came out of that war, he says. And before that. From pogroms and persecution and to the New World. To a different kind of persecution, perhaps. But also hope. Our dreams of heroes come from that, I think. Our American heroes are the wish-fulfilment of immigrants, dazzled by the brashness and the colour of this new world, by its sheer size. We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us. The Vomacht wave did not make them, it released them. Our shared hallucination, our faith. Our faith in heroes. This is why you see our American heroes but never their British counterpart. Our is the rise of Empire, theirs is the deline. Our seek the limelight, while theirs skulk in shadows. (pp.246-247)
In his afterword, the British and World Fantasy Award-winning author admits to modelling this and several of the surrounding sequences on the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution, for war crimes: a tack which is typical of the way Tidhar reconfigures our own horrible history into a darkly fascinating narrative as ghastly as it is fantastical.

In the beginning, in any event, a glimpse of the end: namely the framing narrative by way of which we learn of the events of The Violent Century. In The Hole in the Wall, "a London pub, hidden under the railway arches" (p.8) of the South Bank, a man known only as Oblivion confronts a fellow called Fogg, insisting that they go together to meet the Old Man, the better to clear a couple of things up. "It's just routine," (p.14) one promises the other, but Fogg knows this is not so. He has his secrets, and he will give anything to keep them.

Thus they travel together to the Farm, where Fogg is interrogated at length by the Old Man, who has no other name. He's in charge, as he has ever been, indeed, of the Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, or the Retirement Service, if you will, which long ago promised Fogg and Oblivion — among a number of others we'll meet in a moment — the opportunity "to serve. To be something. Each of you unique. Every boy's secret dream." (p.64) Be that as it may, these dreams, as we'll see, are more like nightmares for most of the changed.

Following the probability wave which made them, or rather remade them, our heroes, such as they are, were taken to the selfsame farm where the framing conversation takes place in the present day, and trained. "It is a place in which the laws of what is real seem suspended, for just a moment. It was beautiful in the daytime, the bright primary colours of blue sky and yellow sun and green grass and white stone. At night it is more of a chiaroscuro, the play of light and shade." (p.71) There, then, under the guidance of a drill instructor and a doctor — none other than Alan Turing — the changed who hail from the UK learn, little by little, to control their abilities.
And so on a lazy sunny afternoon, the Lost Boys and Girls of Never Never Land. Oblivion, Fogg, Spit, Tank, Mr Blur and Mrs Tinkle. Some we know well, some, less well. it is only the nature of things. There are others, too, though many will die in the coming war and other wars and others still are vanished, missing, location unknown: perhaps gone to their own implausible palaces of ice or bat-filled caved, hidden volcanic peaks on jungle-covered South Sea Island, forbidding chrome-and-metal skyscrapers or remote Gothic castles. Or perhaps more prosaically a cottage in Wales. The records are sealed and obscured. (p.77)
This is the calm before the storm, of course. War is coming, and from the 1940s on, it does not seem to stop. Tirelessly, Tidhar takes us through World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War and Afghanistan. But "there was only ever one war to matter, to Oblivion, to the Red Sickle, to all of them. [...] Everything else is a shadow of that war." (p.248)

A shame, then, that so much of The Violent Century is devoted to these episodic digressions. As readers, we gain little insight from said scenes, except to see our secret service set against the superheroes of other countries, from the picture-perfect poster boys who represent the United States to the long-suffering symbols of the USSR and so on. This juxtaposition certainly serves to emphasise our impression of Great Britain's Übermenschen as shady sorts, though it adds little to the either the overall narrative or the larger arcs described by our central characters.

Eventually, we do get back to what matters — the making and breaking of Fogg and Oblivion's friendship by the machinations of the Old Man — but other difficulties persist, first and foremost Tidhar's peculiar prose, moulded in the mode of Jeff VanderMeer's in Finch. The short, sharp sentences; the minimalist exposition; everything up to and including the dialogue is odd. "Words come out haltingly. Like he's forgotten speech." (p.35) It takes a lot of getting used to; progress through the book is so forth slow, leading to problems with pacing that the story's aforementioned sidesteps only exacerbate.

The Violent Century's fractured narrative does, however, have a heart, and when the author sets his sights on this, beauty both meets and beats the beast:
Through a Latin Quarter alive with revellers; Paris, City of Love, City of Lights, transforms into a magical place with one kiss, a Sleeping Beauty awakening, awash with light and love. Night transforms it into a carnival. Paris! Through open doors the smells of cooking waft out. [...] By a bakery, men queue patiently in their suits and their hats for baguette and demi-baguette; nearby they sell jambons, olives, brie and camembert; an old woman sells flowers on the corner of the Boulevard Saint-Michael and Henry buys a red rose and hands it to Klara, who laughs and tosses it in the air. (p.158-159)
The effect of the narrative's darkness and density, then, is the elevation of simple scenes like this, which are rendered with incredible resonance by dint of Tidhar's stylistic decisions. That they are purposeful doesn't make The Violent Century any easier a reading experience, but sometimes... sometimes you just have to work for your wonders.

At the last, Lavie Tidhar's latest is at once a love story, a tragedy, a spy novel, a memoir of a friendship, an exposé of the horrors of war, and a very serious study of the superhero: the origins of the concept as well as its relative relevance. The Violent Century is a difficult text, yes, but one that gives as good as it gets.


The Violent Century
by Lavie Tidhar

UK & US Publication: October 2013, Hodder & Stoughton

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