The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

Hodder, 2014, 347 p.

 The Violent Century cover

This is at once an unusual but also common tale, innovative in style but not so much in plot. (Then again, there are only supposed to be seven of those.) The narrative is conducted in large part via short, verbless sentences, sometimes only one or two words long, at times almost reading like a description of a film playing out before the reader’s eyes, telling us what we would be seeing on the screen. Now and then an authorial voice slides in, adopting the first person plural, as if the reader is a cinema audience relating the story to itself. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time from 1926 to the present day, allowing Tidhar’s characters to be active at various points in the unfolding of the violent mid- to late twentieth century, even the early twenty-first. Scene changes are akin to cinematic dissolves, though each is “captioned” with its time and place in its chapter heading. Throughout, direct speech is not set within quotation marks – which does lead to the occasional phrase requiring a reread.

The plot begins (and periodically unwinds) like an echo of le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Henry Fogg called in by his old oppo, Oblivion, to meet the Old Man, boss at his former employer, The Bureau for Superannuated Affairs, to be questioned about his past evasions.

The background is that sometime in 1932 Dr Joachim Vomacht pushed the button on his machine and unleashed a quantum wave. As a Dr Turing (Alan, we assume) tells the British altered, recruited to a training area in Devon, “To observe an event is to change it. On the quantum level. When Vomacht pressed the button, everything changed. The Vomacht wave was a probability wave. The wave made genetic changes at a subatomic level… For most the change was undetectable ….. But perhaps a few hundred became … you.” The changed, dubbed Übermenschen, have superpowers and are named appropriately. Fogg conjures fog out of the air or any smoke available, Oblivion destroys things, Spit conjures up and projects bullets from her mouth, Mr Blur … blurs, Tank is built like one, Mrs Tinkle can make time retrace itself. Corresponding Übermenschen exist in other countries. The US has Tigerman, the Green Gunman and Whirlwind; the Soviets, the Red Sickle and Rusalka; Germany, Schneesturm and Der Wolfsmann.

The crux of the plot is Sommertag, Vomacht’s daughter Klara, who can pass through doors into a perfect summer’s day, an attribute Fogg finds irresistible despite her being an enemy citizen when they meet. His defence is that, “‘It,’” (the Vomacht wave,) “‘fused into her somehow. It kept her pure.’”

Tidhar appears to have gone to great lengths to make sure that history in this story is unchanged from what the reader knows happened – apart from the appearance of rocket men on the Russian Front (unless this is a WW2 manifestation of which I had not previously heard, a singular unlikelihood) and the Potsdam Conference being held one year later than it was, still with Churchill attending rather than Attlee as it would have been in 1946 (and as it was for the latter part in 1945) – the rise of the Nazis, World War 2, the Cold War, Vietnam, September 11th all take place here as they did in our time. It is as if the comic books were true and those superheroes were present to take part in events but without affecting anything substantial, participants but not decisive.

One scene in Afghanistan involves Sheik Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden calling the changed ‘abominations’ while the Americans (who regard him as, “The rich spoiled son of a rich and powerful family…. Playing soldiers in the desert,”) are trying to use him against the Soviets – and thereby sow the seeds for the Twin Towers whirlwind. Of that 11th September our (plural) narrator tells us, “That day we look up to the sky and see the death of heroes.”

A Russian says, “We should have learned from your history. The British. Three wars and you lost every one. You can’t win a war here. You couldn’t, we can’t, and whoever comes after us is going to lose too. This land hates invaders,” and warns, “This bin Laden. This Saudi. Kill him now. Kill him when you have the chance, or he will turn on you.” Easy to say in a book published over ten years after an event but many did give out warnings at the time.

The Violent Century is admirably plotted and well paced, with an atmosphere of menace throughout, I’m puzzled as to why this wasn’t on any award shortlist for its year.

Pedant’s corner:- Antennas (antennae.) “Facing the bar counter are a row of barstools.” (Facing the bar counter is a row of barstools,) barkeep (not a British usage. We say ‘barman’ or maybe ‘landlord’,) “air separating into nitrogen and hydrogen” (that’s a neat trick, there’s very little hydrogen in air, only what is the relatively low proportion of air comprised of water vapour.) “None of us choose what we become” (None of us chooses,) King George IV (George VI, as he was correctly designated later,) “the moans reach a crescendo” (a climax perhaps; a crescendo is a build-up, not a culmination,) eldrich (eldritch,.) “None of them have been properly introduced yet” (None of them has been properly introduced.) “None of them are.” (None of them is,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s,) “none come” (none comes,) “do this hundreds of time” (of times.) “Millions more watched the ceremony around the world in a special broadcast by the BBC.” (Millions around the world watched the Coronation ? In 1953? Before communication satellites? I don’t think so.) “The only thing in motion are his eyes” (‘thing’ is singular so cannot have a plural verb form; ‘the only things in motion are his eyes,) Johnny Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) a missing question mark after “What do I know”, another question mark ought to replace a comma later on, “we’re not in the army here, Bob, Bob says, Yeah, yeah,” (a full stop instead of a comma after the first ‘Bob’) “Incoming!” (British troops do not shout this. They yell, ‘Take cover!) “Goddamned” (nor do British folk say this.)

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