‘Osama‘ won Lavie Tidhar the World Fantasy Award. It feathers reality with fantasy, and though occasionally confusing it delivers a wonderful meditation on violence and terrorism in modern society. In many ways The Violent Century carries on in the same vein. Whilst more accessible than Osama, this book too has an unusual structure. Its scope is wider, focusing specifically on World War Two, but more generally on war as a phenomenon. At its heart is a simple question. What makes a hero?
Once again Tidhar’s premise is elegant and compelling. In the 1930s a quantum experiment carried out in Nazi Germany imbued a small percentage of humanity with superpowers. The resulting novel is a string of vignettes of pivotal moments of World War Two, reimagined with superheroes or Übermenschen.
The central narrative, if not weak, is at least diaphanous. The structure of the novel is haphazard, broken down into several sections which are divided further into lots of small chapters. After a brief present day prologue, the narrative returns to before the war, resting on Fogg and Oblivion, two new recruits in the British government’s shadowy ‘Retirement Bureau.’ From then on each section roughly follows on chronologically from the previous one. Within each however, the timeline jumps back and forth, returning often to a present day interrogation of Fogg, by the enigmatic head of the Bureau, ‘Old Man’.
This is not a traditional superhero story. The presence of Übermenschen on both sides gives the tale balance, and an equilibrium that means the major events of this alternate history play out much as the did in reality. (I wasn’t completely convinced by this. I feel the mere presence of super-humans in the war would greatly have altered its course. Much like the effect of the invention of the machine gun on the cavalry charge. But no matter. This is not what the novel is about.)
The Übermenschen were one moment in time creations. The result of a single experiment, at a fixed point. Superheroes created en masse. All ages affected, all nationalities, all walks of life. This gives rise to that staple of all superhero fiction, and often the most interesting part, the genesis story. At the risk of denigrating Tidhar’s work I found it reminiscent of the opening chapters of the TV series ‘Heroes’ where we meet the characters and learn their powers (ie the bit where it was good). Here Tidhar’s creativity is all to the fore, and his melding of new concepts and twisting of old tropes is masterly.
At the heart of the novel is the concept of heroism. The traditional comic book world is black and white. Heroes and villains; good vs evil. And so it is with broad stroke depictions of World War Two. Today, more so than ever, society’s view of our fighting forces is predominantly that they are all heroes, almost regardless of what they may actually be fighting for.
In truth, war sees heroes and villains abound on both sides, also the indifferent, the unlucky and the in the right place at the right time. What effect does having a super power have on this? As we all know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, but how true is that observation?
Placing superheroes in World War Two is not a new concept, but this is the first I’ve read something that analyses exactly what it might mean. Is it possible to hold yourselves as the master race, when the other side has a man who can will things out of existence? Tidhar poses some interesting questions, such as, whether a beneficial result gained from a Nazi experiment can ever be a good thing. Were all monsters created equal, or were some (the rocket scientists) more equal than others? He answers some but leaves others hanging.
Stylistically some might consider the novel a challenge. You have to have some chutzpah to open a chapter with ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round.’ but Tidhar pulls off this type of literary quirk time and again. There are countless references to his source material, including an opium filled self-referential homage to the genre, which I loved, but others may find passée. The point of view is unusual, with the more than the occasional insertion from an omnipotent narrator, to us, the reader. This sort of device is often irritating, but I felt it suited the espionage nature of the novel. Webs within webs; who is controlling who?
As well as being a superhero story, The Violent Century is also a spy thriller. For reasons explained in the novel, the British superheroes use cloak and dagger, leaving the brash theatrics to the Americans. The Brits are spies with special powers. Fogg, unsurprisingly fits the bill perfectly for this wartime skulduggery. This final dimension to the book is what gives it its solidity, adding that final coda of modern superhero stories, and the real post 9/11 world – Who watches the Watchmen?
Tidhar teases us with what Fogg and Oblivion are trying to find, why Fogg dropped off the radar, and why, decades later, the Old Man has called him in and reopened old wounds. The answer is surprising and surprisingly tender. Like a shape in the fog, suddenly revealed, the story that you thought was about one thing, turns out to be about something else altogether. Literary sleight of hand this accomplished can only be applauded.
Many Thanks to Anne at Hodderscape for sending me a copy of this book.