on 28 June 2014
Tale: 1) a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted
At the age of seven, Johan Thoms outwits a chess master, but on June 28, 1914, at the age of twenty, he discovers he can't drive a car in reverse. While chauffeuring the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, he takes a wrong turn and haplessly delivers the couple into the hands of an assassin, and thus, (in his mind) starts a world war. Unable to face the ramifications of this horrific blunder, he flees Sarajevo into a life filled with regret and self-blame (but not without adventure).
This is a "tale," of course, and while the assassination of the archduke and his wife is historical fact, there is no historical Johan Thoms. In truth, historians can't be sure who was chauffeuring the royal couple that day. (Was it Leopold Lojka or Franz Urban? The debate is still not settled.)
When Johan takes flight from his nightmare, he leaves behind his eccentric (at best) father and loving mother, his closest friend, his flamboyant benefactor, and the love of his life, the beautiful Lorelie. As he journeys out of the city, he begins to acquire a menagerie of new friends (including the faithful dog, Alfredo) and eventually crosses paths with many of the "players" of that era. (How could one not mention Hemingway when discussing the Spanish Civil War? Or Dorothy Parker?) The history of that time is used as a vehicle to deliver an epic tale.
I could ask questions about why Johan does (or doesn't do) certain things but, to quote the book, "`Exaggeration is naturally occurring in the DNA of the cadaver known as the tale.' [...] this part of the game was not to be taken lightly." (Also, if I posed these questions here, I'd have to include a spoiler alert.)
This is a story born of tragedy, of luckless blunders, of faults in perception and judgment, of misplaced guilt and missed opportunity, of squandered love. But, for all Johan lost, he made up for in his newfound friendships. For all the ugliness of that day on a street in Sarajevo, Johan meets much beauty as he runs from it--from the angelic women who nurse him, to Cicero, to the Hooligans, and even the perceptive dog, Alfredo. He makes a positive impact on the lives of so many, and who knows if he would have been able to do this if he'd stayed behind? Is this his redemption?
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is clever and erudite, rich in detail and complexity without taking itself too seriously. It's a tour de force of craftsmanship. It has elements of magical realism, and themes abound. The humor is quiet, sublime. The reader has to pay attention to be in on the joke. Some of the references, either overt or covert, require a level of knowledge that not all readers will possess, and I'm sure I missed a few. Asides, oblique mentions, footnotes, all pull the reading into the narrative--as if it is a true story being recounted and not just a work of fiction. This type of rich, lush book is uncommon, not only due to a rarity of talent but, as the author revealed in an interview, it was seven years in the making. Well worth the wait.
As a footnote about the history behind this fiction: I do not believe the driver of the car carrying the royal couple accidently turned down the wrong street. It is too big of a coincidence. However, I suppose bigger ironies--coincidences--have happened in real life. I read on the Internet (but how reliable is anything you read there?) that Lojka, one of the men attributed to being the driver, was given a stipend and opened a hotel where he displayed the bloodstained suspenders of the archduke and an item of the duchess'. If he had been innocent, would he do such a thing, especially since an innocent child was killed in the process? Perhaps so, the world is so wicked. But I prefer to believe the driver would have felt some remorse, some sense of guilt, like the fictional Johan.
on 31 July 2014
I tell you this – if you only read one book a year – read this one; if you dismiss my occasional book reviews as the inane prattlings of a fool, put your prejudices to one side and grasp this recommendation with two fists – because this is a truly brilliant book.
Johan Thoms is the unfortunate young Bosnian who, in June 2014, had the misfortune to drive Archduke Franz Ferdinand (funny how that now makes me think of a briefly good Scottish Indie band) and his pregnant wife down the wrong road in Sarajevo, an event that led to them being assassinated by the Serbian Nationalist, Princip.
Thoms’ life is immediately changed forever: prior to his mistake, he was a talented student embroiled in a wonderfully passionate affair with the beautiful Lorelei, afterwards he is immediately filled with guilt as he convicts himself of the death of the Archduke, and then, as Europe disintegrates into war, the deaths of millions. Unable to cope he runs away from Sarajevo, befriends, then cures a boy Cicero, who becomes his buddy for the rest of his life and embarks upon an Odyssey that takes him across Europe to Italy, Portugal, then Cadiz at the time of the Spanish Civil War, before escaping to England at the time of the blitz. Thoms is a chess master, an author, a pharmacist, a chronicler and a drinker of repute. At times he is a philosopher of great sensitivity and insight, but, the events of June 1914 are never far away from his thoughts, he struggles with each and every catastrophe that befalls the twentieth century, a struggle that prevents him from returning to Lorelei who spends her twentieth century trying to find the one and only love of her life at times coming agonizingly close to finding him.
His journey is an epic kaleidoscope as author Ian Thornton brilliantly intertwines actual historical events and characters with fiction and half-truth (the scene in a Cadiz where Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell get drunk with Thoms is genius). The overall effect is utterly compelling – fuelled by Thornton’s superb prose that is at times hilarious, erotic and moving, this is a novel that everyone should read. It reminds me a bit of those blockbusters that became everyone’s favourite in the 1990’s, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birdsong, in that it effortlessly creates a landscape that is utterly credible and populated by characters who you want to get to know.
This is a brilliantly conceived book that has some great ideas but I felt that it did lose a little pace and direction after the crucial mistake Johan makes but To be fair that does reflect the confusion and lack of direction that our 'hero' experiences. Johan Thoms is a promising young man with skills, talents and charm that make him someone who has a promising future but after the 'calamitous' event that leads to the death of Franz Ferdinand, and thus arguably the World War, his guilt leads to him leaving home (and the love of his life, Lorelei) and starting on an epic journey through the history and geography of 20th Century Europe.
Along the way he encounters many colourful characters and adopts some fellow 'strays' who you will find engaging and endearing. The novel mixes real historical characters and events with the fictional narrative in a way that reminds me of best seller, The Hundred Year Old Man who climbed out of the window and disappeared, but I found this packs more of an emotional punch. Much to discuss and a great lead character.