The Laughter of Carthage by Michael Moorcock (Random House: $19.95)
Like Harry Flashman, Michael Moorcock's Col. Pyat skids cater-cornered across large historical events, full of single purposes and misapprehensions. Like Flashman, he is boastful, crooked, an intercontinental Lothario, a bungling harebrain borne along by disasters, and a dreadful liar. But where Flashman swoops and darts with a swallow-like insouciance, Pyat flaps along like an overloaded pelican.
In the first book of the Pyat saga, "Byzantium Prevails," the protagonist related his exploits fighting on the losing side of the Russian Revolution. "The Laughter of Carthage" opens as he flees Odessa aboard a British steamer in the company of Mrs. Cornelius, a Cockney music-hall artiste who has made love to most of the Bolshevik leadership. It follows his highly colored version of his adventures with the armies of Kemal Ataturk, his participation in a grand financial swindle in Paris, and his flight to America where he falls in with other swindlers, makes lecture tours on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan, and ends up in Hollywood.
The adventures are wildly improbable, and deliberately so; with the air of something manufactured from a mix of reality, exaggeration and contradictory fantasies. The effect is of Napoleon's valet telling how he, the valet, had won the battle of Waterloo. Waterloo was a loss, of course; but Pyat moves forward by getting things wrong.
Fails at Everything Pyat, who presents himself as a scientific wizard, an inventor of genius, a political visionary and a bon viveur, fails miserably at everything. The one-man flying machine, worn with a harness that he builds for the Turks, crashes on its first flight. The enormous aircraft he is to design as front man for bands of French and American swindlers never gets built. His women use him, betray him or avoid him. The brilliant and important figures he claims as friends are confidence men or fanatics. His love of good living ends with a wretched existence in a London slum. His real talent is for getting out of town ahead of the law; and for transmuting all his failures into a giant scheme of world conspiracy.
As with Flashman, the comedy of Pyat is the contrast between the absurdity of his schemes and his naively crooked faith in them. He is the would-be duper perennially duped. His claims reek with fraudulence. As he embarks on one more scheme for friendship or seduction, we know and he doesn't that he will end up de-bagged.
Pyat is more complicated than Flashman, however; a creature of greater density as well as denseness. Much of his poisoned sky-rocketry consists of efforts to build and sustain his paranoid view of history. He is passionately, triumphantly on the wrong or losing side of every large event.
A Permanent Battle His vision of the world is that of a permanent battle between the West and the East or, in his particular symbolism, between the Roman Empire and Carthage. "Roman" values include such disparate phenomena as czarism, fascism, selective portions of European culture, the entrepreneurial spirit of the United States, blue-eyed blondes and the Ku Klux Klan. Carthage, on the other hand, is a giant conspiracy that includes Communists, Jews, the Spanish empire and Asians of every kind. And in every personal defeat he sees evidence of Carthaginian agentry.
The fact that Pyat seems to be Jewish and a sometime Bolshevik agent adds piquancy, not to mention paradox, to this jumble. It doesn't manage to redeem the jumble itself, and this is what makes "The Laughter of Carthage" very heavy going indeed, despite its wit.
Such nicely absurd constructs as Pyat's notion that Mussolini's failure was due to bad breath fail to counterbalance the volume of wooly and declamatory theory and lamentation with which Moorcock's demented protagonist lards the very many pages of the book.
The notion of a man who is brainsick with history learned upside down has parodic possibilities, but the lengthy expounding of the sickness becomes wearisome. Pyat hasn't enough charm to make up for his extremely long-winded unpleasantness, and the unpleasantness is not funny enough to make up for itself.