On a perfect summer’s day in 1932, a young woman dances in a field, where ‘the sunlight is blinding, a pure, yellow radiance emanating from deep blue skies’. Inside the nearby farmhouse, her father switches on a device he has been working on, and as he does, Dr. Vomacht’s device sends out a wave, a ripple in space that spreads beyond the field his daughter dances in, a ripple that changes the lives of many, many people all over the world forever, as the house begins to ‘shimmer, inexplicably, as though the level of agitation in its component molecules has been increased, all at once. A distortion emanates from the farmhouse. Silent, swift, it travels from the source and spreads in an outwardly expanding circle.’ This ripple spreads over the entire world, and everything changes, ‘from butterflies to crops to humans. But for most the change [is] undetectable. Tiny. Minute.’ A few hundred people become ‘suspended in a moment in time’, they become more than human, more than just men and women - they become ‘übermenschen’ - beyond what humanity has been expected or known or even understood to be.
Set in a world where superheroes are very real and even familiar, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century questions what it means to be a hero, and whether heroes can really save the world, or even each other. The Violent Century like a perfect blend of Le Carre’s spy novels and Grant Morrison’s X-Men, but bigger, deeper and more resonant.
The creation of the übermenschen changes the world in certain ways, but these ways are not enough to avoid war or genocide. The superheroes’ primary purpose becomes to serve their country during war - repeatedly. The übermenschen never age, never die a natural death, instead living for generations, watching governments rise and fall, observing others making the same mistakes again and again. Espionage is lonely and never-ending but no matter how many wars the heroes see, ultimately ‘there was only ever one war to matter … to all of them. Everything else is a shadow of that war’.
World War 2 - and we meet Fogg and Oblivion, two of the British ubermenschen who have been recruited by the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs to observe and report during the war. They operate under the names Fogg and Oblivion (‘such fanciful names’). Of course, it is not only the British who have their ‘special’ forces in place - every country in the world does, each representing the ideals of their nation - Russia’s The Red Sickle, America’s brash, bold League of Defenders, the frightening Nazi negator known as the wolf man and the quiet, secret spies of the British who admit, ‘to observe something is to change it’. ‘We nullify each other’, says the Old Man who runs the Bureau. ‘If only the Nazis had [superheroes], for instance. Then the war could go a different way. But having them on every side nullifies the advantage… in this war, we are merely common soldiers.’ And so both Fogg and Oblivion, alongside many other übermenschen are not special as one would assume superheroes to be. They continue as career soldiers and spies in a string of wars, moving through the world from Germany to Russia to Transylvania, from Laos to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to New York, never quite able to save the world, not even on 9/11, when ‘the dream dies’. ‘All that time we had expected a saviour’, writes Tidhar, ‘A man. A hero. But what’s a hero? Someone leaping from the colour pages or from the silver screen, gun in hand, to rescue us. To make it stop. To disarm the hijackers, to land the plane safely. To avert this monstrosity. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s - Nothing. No one.’
Tidhar does not attempt to change or recreate history as we know it - he adds to it, creating his own über-history, using the world that exists as a basis for a greater, even more complicated world where having heroes does not simplify anything at all, especially when your heroes are men and women who did not ask to be changed, who still love and mourn as humans do. While The Violent Century is a story about war and humanity and what it means to be a hero, it is also very much a love story between Oblivion, Fogg and Klara, the young woman who danced in the field on a perfect summer’s day when everything changed. Klara is at the heart of this story, she is both it’s keeper and it’s key. For a novel that skips through time and space as often as The Violent Century does, Tidhar does an impeccable job of bringing everything back full circle.
Lavie Tidhar won the British Fantasy Award last year for his surreal noir novel Osama, in which a private investigator attempts to locate the writer of a series of pulp novels about a masked vigilante character named Osama bin Laden. While Osama was a good book with it’s own strengths, there is no doubt that Tidhar has raised the bar hugely with The Violent Century. With the control of a master storyteller, Tidhar shifts the narrative through time and space with ease, with short chapters alternating between different years and countries and effectively moving the story along fast, a story borne perfectly by it’s own taut, hypnotic rhythms. There is a very strong stylistic presence of noir fiction, with the brevity and sharpness of the prose immediately bringing to mind that of the hardboiled novel and of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
The Violent Century is also very aware of the superhero oeuvre, even featuring Superman co-creator Joe Schuster in one vital scene, where he attempts to explain how triggering the device that created superheroes may not have been a criminal act: ‘We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us. The Vomacht wave did not make them, it released them. Our shared hallucination, our faith. Our faith in heroes.’
Within the sparseness of Tidhar’s language there are poignant, poetic phrases that resonate with great elegance, there is romance and melancholy and beauty within this fascinating fractured, controlled prose. It is easy to be sucked into the story, easy to speed along the short, precise sentences, until you realise you may have missed something crucial, something important and elaborate hidden safely within that sparsity, something calling for repeated readings and exploration.
The Violent Century
By Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton, UK