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Sunday, May 16, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rich, Complex Novel -- `Kings' Is Personal Story Woven Through Historic Era

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Book Of Kings" by James Thackara Overlook Press, $27.95 -------------------------------

James Thackara's monumental novel about history, "The Book of Kings," brings its own checkered publishing history with it.

An essay by James Walsh in the December 1997 issue of The New Yorker charted the roller coaster ride "The Book of Kings," Thackara's third novel, took on the way to publication. Walsh noted that the book "gestated for 25 years through a jungle of rewrites and a Hundred Years' War of publishing battles."

Thackara saw his magnum opus (1470 manuscript pages) accepted by Bantam Press/United Kingdom for a low six-figure advance, then dropped by that publisher over editorial differences, then finally picked up by the small Overlook Press for a mid five-figure advance.

Now the book that nobody would publish is the book nobody should miss reading.

Though offhanded comparisons to "War and Peace" may be effusive, they are not completely unwarranted. Like Tolstoy's novel, Thackara's work plays out personal history against the vast backdrop of world history. It is a big book (800 pages) with big subjects (politics, art, philosophy, war, the history of the world) and big themes writ in capital letters (Truth, Honor, Beauty, Love).

The story focuses on four main characters, students who first meet in Paris. It is 1932 when David Sunda, Johannes Godard, Justin Lothaire, and Duncan Penn begin their studies at the Sorbonne.

David and Johannes share diverse German backgrounds - David's baronial family owns Oberlinden, a Bavarian estate; Johannes' philosophical preoccupations lead him astray of his mother's prescient warnings of the rise of Hitler. Justin, half-French, half-Algerian, begins life as the son of a lowly lace maker before receiving the scholarship which will take him to the world's highest rank of respected thinkers.

Duncan, the American, is the least developed of the four characters. His story receives less narrative attention than the others.

This overwhelmingly rich and complex novel begins when David's son, Albert, and Duncan's son, James, make a stop at the Grand Cimetiere de Verdun, the cemetery at the site of the World War I battleground, before meeting the now 60-year-old David aboard a trawler on its way to Cyprus and Tel Aviv. Albert is estranged from his father - David abandoned his family for a mistress his children's age. Learning that David Sunda knew his father, James pleads with him to tell his story.

The epic-scoped Homeric narrative that follows is David's "legend of his time."

Once the framework for the massive story is established, the novel effortlessly weaves back and forth from the early onset of Nazism towards the Holocaust through the whole of World War II. The time frame covers more than 40 years - from 1924 to the late 60s.

Battle scenes loom large in the violent action of the novel, but do not overwhelm the story line. The 1940 battle at Sedan, the first full-scale use of a tank attack and the first German breakthrough in the invasion of France, is painstakingly detailed. Between historical episodes, Thackara wedges his characters' personal stories. One recounts David's and his wife's excruciatingly difficult six-month journey home from Mexico to Vladivostok, then across the breadth of Russia by rail, a trip that includes the treacherous birth of their first child, Alaric, delivered aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Another, "Maelstrom," set in 1941, is a key chapter which underscores the extraordinary scope and immensity of Thackara's vision. It includes no fewer than four indelible episodes of the period: a riotous evening at the Kit Kat Club (familiar from Christopher Isherwood's "I Am A Camera" and the film "Cabaret"); a futile attempt to stop the heartsickening slaughter of 2000 Russians; the attack on Pearl Harbor; and the eye-wrenching view of the first extermination camp in Chelmno, Poland.

Thackara's acknowledged success is the consummate ability to gracefully mesh the personal with the political, the sense of the individual with the historical, to move effortlessly from terrifying scenes of massive devastation to the tinkling of ballroom chandeliers or the redolent smells of the back alleys of Algiers. If there might have been one more addition to the novel, a complementary index might have helped readers return to find characters or scenes in this huge undertaking.

To paraphrase poet Robert Browning, a writer's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a novel for. Thackara more than grants the reader a worthy investment for time and effort. When the novel finally returns to the 60s and David's and the world's story has been told, one character declares that the story has been a "parable of conscience." But David, the last survivor of the Sorbonne Four, corrects him and identifies the period as "a tidal wave of the maimed and incinerated." Thackara's crowning achievement is that he has been able to tell both stories and tell them well.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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