For years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart.
Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism to answer one last, impossible question:
What makes a hero?
What makes a man? What makes a hero? Both are questions often asked by different characters throughout Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century. In some ways these are the central questions to the narrative, but neither question is answered in a definitive fashion. The reader is left to formulate her own answer. Tidhar’s story is set over the course of the twentieth century, whose violent years gave rise to many heroes, both the comic book kind and those of flesh and blood The narrative shows us these comic book heroes made flesh though an accident with the machine created by the German scientist Dr Vomacht, in an alternate reality that is amazingly detailed in its historical facts and just ‘off’ enough to feel rather alien at times. Its mood is noir and slowly moves from moody black and white to the grimy over-saturated colours of the sixties on to a still gritty, but sharply-defined present.
Heroism is at the core of the story. All of the Changed are regarded as superheroes, though only the American Changed are designated as such. The others are called Changed or Übermenschen, a term whose connotations – especially given the book’s mainly WWII setting – left me uncomfortable and wondering at the ultimate goal for Dr Vomacht’s machine. Vomacht’s ultimate motivation, beyond studying life, never becomes clear and it’s never clear what his machine was actually meant to do. But while they are all shown as Heroes, be they superheroes, Changed or Übermensch, I found the truly heroic moments were found in those brief spells where their humanity shone through. Tank’s interposing himself between Oblivion and Fogg and the Nazi’s, with a last exhortation to get to safety, Mr Blur’s last sweet smile before running off, so Fogg could make his retreat. Kerach’s self-sacrifice to avenge his comrades and not co-incidentally let Oblivion and Fogg get away is another good example. It’s these glimpses of humanity and the strong show of fellow feeling between the agents of the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs, especially between Fogg and Oblivion, which make the characters come alive and shine.
The central relationships of the narrative are those between Fogg and Oblivion and Fogg and Sommertag. Fogg and Oblivion are partners and best friends, though Oblivion is gay – or at least bisexual – and there are hints here and there that the relationship at times had gone further than friendship, though this is never explicitly confirmed and might even just be unrequited desires on Oblivion’s side or even this reader’s faulty interpretation. Sommertag is the unexpected love of Fogg’s existence and it’s her relationship with Fogg that creates most of the tension in Fogg’s life – between him and Oblivion and him and his service to King and Country. While the instant rapport between Fogg and Sommertag seemed somewhat forced, I liked seeing what she loosened in the restrained Fogg. But to me the most interesting relationship was between Fogg and Oblivion. The ending of the book is heart-breaking and made me think that no matter how long and well we know another, we’ll never know their entire self.
Stylistically The Violent Century is very strong and quite interesting. Tidhar chooses to tell his story in a great many short chapters, the final tally is 164 and these chapters often switch between time periods and not always the time period stated at the start of the books the narrative is divided into. It weaves an intricate tapestry of motives, memories, history, and world building. Tidhar also doesn’t use quotation marks in his dialogues, which took me a while to get used to—it’s funny to realise how accustomed we are to the common use of punctuation and how disorienting leaving just one element out. On the whole the stylistics are fabulous, though at times it made for having to reread passages several times before they make sense.
The Violent Century was my first long-form encounter with Lavie Tidhar and hopefully it won’t be my last. I was very impressed by this war torn superhero narrative, which touches upon sensitive topics such as the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial, World War II atrocities, but also on less well-known wars such as the Laotian Civil War and US involvement therein and ever holds up a mirror asking us: “What makes a man?” A story that sings around for a bit and got stuck in my head, The Violent Century is a strong contender for my top ten this year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.