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Book Review

A Sweeping Saga Set in the Age of Hitler

THE BOOK OF KINGS; by James Thackara; Overlook Press $28.95, 774 pages

May 11, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eight hundred pages long, 25 years in the making, James Thackara's novel "The Book of Kings" is a sweeping saga in the grand old tradition. Its subject: the rise and fall of Hitler's planned 1,000-year empire as experienced by four young men who meet as students in Paris in 1931.

David von Sunda's family traces its ancestry back to a Germanic chieftain who rebelled against Roman rule. David hopes his generation will avoid the mistakes of past ones. His friend Justin Lothaire is a penniless genius from French Algeria, whose devotion to literature is matched only by his compassion for humanity. Then there's Johannes Godard, a shy young German who is one of his generation's most promising philosophers. Last--and least-- is an American whose main purpose seems to be siring a son who returns to Europe in the 1960s to learn the whole story from von Sunda.

As the Nazis begin their rise, David's father, a veteran of World War I, sees what is coming: "In 1914 we were excused . . . But this time? How have we failed in order to choose these people who never stop boasting of their violence?" he muses in a passage that illustrates some of the awkward tendencies of Thackara's prose style. "Every day that goes by we could turn back and Europe would be saved. But even the philosopher-kings are sleepwalking."

David's brother, Friedrich, shares the mind-set that made many Germans willing to turn to Hitler: "He knew that this one man was prepared to make any sacrifices . . . even daring to resort, as Friedrich never would, to crime and murder." Yet, Friedrich wonders: "Can it be that to him all of this means something quite unlike what it means to me?"

As nation after nation falls to the Nazi conquest, Justin becomes a Resistance hero, and David joins the Wehrmacht, hoping to persuade his superior, Gen. Guderian, to join the anti-Hitler conspiracy. Ironically, it is the gentle Johannes Godard who finds himself allied with a movement out to destroy every value he cherishes. Johannes preaches a gospel of love and plans to unmask the three modern heresies: "Marx's materialist god, Freud's god of sex, and Nietzsche's race god of amorality." But his sexual inexperience leaves him vulnerable to the lethal charms of a Nazi-sympathizing Wagnerian diva. All that remains of his innocence is his refusal to see what is happening around him. Thackara has invested his damnation with chilling Faustian overtones.

If Godard's philosophical eminence and links to the Nazis may recall Heidegger, the courageous Justin Lothaire bears a much closer resemblance to Camus. Indeed, although Thackara takes pains to make him different from Camus, it is hard to read about Justin's fatherless Algerian childhood without being reminded of Camus' far superior treatment of the subject. Thackara describes his characters' lives in great detail, but without much insight. David, for example, is deeply changed by his wartime experiences. We see--and may even believe--that the change happens, but Thackara does not really show us why it happens.

The story behind this book is a saga in itself, told by John Walsh in the New Yorker. Editors and agents who read the gargantuan opus were unsure whether it was a work of genius or a pile of pretensions. The author fiercely resisted editorial suggestions, holding fast to the sanctity of his vision. Thackara's ambition was to write a 20th century "War and Peace." But aspiration, however admirable, is not the same as achievement. In truth, the novel is neither a masterpiece nor a sham. It is an absorbing story, with some very powerful scenes and some rather plodding ones. Large questions of ethics and philosophy are introduced but not always adequately explored. Where Dostoevsky might give us a disquisition on the competing claims of freedom and solidarity, faith and reason, Thackara is content to allude to ideas rather than discuss them. With its grand design and themes, this book promises more than it delivers.

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