Fogg and Oblivion. Oblivion and Fogg. These British supermen meet once again in a London backstreet pub filled with figures constructed from mist and fog. Immediately the story establishes that something had happened to drive these two apart as they haven’t seen one another in half a century and their reunion is uncomfortably tense. This present day meeting anchors the story as it flashes between many of the most pivotal points in 20th Century history of conflict and the intricate, sombre and emotional story of these two men who unexpectedly find themselves with superhuman abilities.
Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century is the story of Fogg and Oblivion from their first recruitment into The Retirement Bureau through World War II and the Vietnam War. In the 1930s, a Nazi scientist named Vormacht created a device that sent out a probability wave that changed a small portion of the population, giving them super powers. The book doesn’t dwell on this aspect of the origin story and doesn’t need to as it is familiar to pretty much everyone now, what with the abundance of comic books made into films. In The Violent Century ordinary men and women are given powers, but with the added caveat that they don’t age, which makes for some rather melancholic superheroes.
Not a very long a book, Tidhar’s focus on these periods is a good move, as it leaves all the other possibilities to be imagined by the reader. I found myself visualising each scene in black and white like an old-time movie, and hell yes did it work well. In fact, with the very short scene/chapters, the segueing back and forth around the 20th century, I could imagine The Violent Century making an amazing film, something like The Third Man with the epic Orson Welles. The Violent Century is what you’d get if Cormac McCarthy wrote a mash-up of Watchmen and Casablanca. It’s a classic World War II film, cold-war spy thriller and superhero story all rolled into one tightly written package.
The story travels from the British countryside to London, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Transylvania and Vietnam and re-imagines all the major events this time with caped superheroes doing battle amongst tanks, tin hats and M1 Carbines. Tidhar deals with the potential for dramatic historical changes, and why there aren’t any from such a world changing event, by the simple mechanic of opposites cancelling one another out. If both sides have ubermenschen then neither has more or less an advantage than they previously had. Several of the characters are based on real-life people giving it an eerie sense of reality. Mentions of Mengele are suitably chilling as even with only a little knowledge of his experiments you can easily imagine how fascinated (and if there’s one person you wouldn’t want fascinated by you, it’s Mengele) he would have been with the ubermenschen.
It makes one wonder what the British government’s secret experiments were, for surely they must have had some, but this novel only shows the ‘good day old boy’ proper face of the British at war, while the Americans are typically ostentatious, brash and flamboyantly super. There is a slight reductive element of Allies equalling good and Axis powers being evil, but this feels appropriate for the subject of a superhero narrative. What would a Korean, Inuit, or Cuban ubermenschen have been like? The major western world powers each have their cadres of superheroes, and their battles are beautifully written, with tight prose of sometimes brutal simplicity, but all the more effective for it. The characters are known by their superhero identities with names like Spit, Tank, Mr. Blur, Mrs. Tinkle, Dracul, The Wolfman, Sabra, Tigerman and Whirlwind, yet this never feels the slightest bit ridiculous or juvenile because it’s treated with utter seriousness.
I often found myself wanting more, wanting to know how this ‘change’ delivered by the Vormacht wave affected the rest of the world, imagine how the Afrikaner government of Apartheid South Africa would have reacted to finding out there were superior people in the world and they weren’t white! This is perhaps one of the ideas that I do believe could have been explored more in this book: how genocidal and racist regimes would actually react when confronted with the reality of genetic superiority of these supermen.
The Violent Century is an amazing book and as my first introduction to Lavie Tidhar’s writing I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Although I was first hesitant about the stylistic literary affectation he’s chosen to write with, once it became familiar, it felt right and each element of the writing, world and characters complemented each other wonderfully. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone.