FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

He’s A Twentieth Century Knave

by RON JACOBS

Some books exemplify the moment they are written about. These books, through the power of their narrative, provide a contextual ambience so real the reader becomes a part of the tale being told. Some such texts that come to mind are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The engrossed reader of these two novels cannot separate themselves from the surf or the ship of Ishmael, Queegeeq and Captain Ahab. Nor can they view Kurtz’s jungle nightmare from a distance that might allow a dispassionate response. We are with Marlow in his discovery of the horror or we are one of Kurtz’s tortured victims.

The twentieth century has its share of such books, too. In Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer describes his experience in Washington, DC during a series of October 1967 protests against the US war in Vietnam so expertly that we too feel the thump of the nightstick, the excitement of the confrontation and the effects of the coffee cup of bourbon he drinks near the beginning of the text. Likewise, John Cheever’s suburban white folks in Bullet Park evoke the flatness of suburban life so well; we too become numb to the diversions his characters undertake. The despair, drudgery and dirt of the early twentieth-century slaughterhouse floor in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is masked only by the stench the author forces us to breathe.

The narratives of each of the four books mentioned above occur in a short amount of time. To write about an entire century would seem to require considerably more space. In that regard, Michael Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet encompasses three quarters of a century, three continents, and a couple thousand pages. The books, each bearing a title of an ancient geographical entity: Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands and The Vengeance of Rome, seem to represent the protagonist’s desire to see his times as equivalent to the histories of those great cities and their legions of the past. This epic is the story of one man with many aliases, national allegiances, and tales. Like their protagonist, the four books of this quartet are ceaselessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and engaging.

This is a tale of the century seen through the eyes of an irascible, narcissistic and possibly insane genius whose political sympathies lie with monarchists and fascists. In his political sympathies he is not so different than many of his contemporaries. Similarly, his prejudices are more universal than we as a people like to pretend. Combining self deception willful ignorance and genuine naïveté Pyat plays a convincing habitué of the twentieth century’s orgy of destruction, creation and confusion.8_the_vengeance_of_rome

The author Moorcock’s pretense is that he is the editor of Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski’s journals (aka Colonel Pyat.) Born January 1, 1900, Pyat’s tale is that of an adventurer, dreamer and fantasist, lover, actor, hustler and soldier. As he blunders himself through the century he finds himself in the company of exiled nobility, drug smugglers, engineers, klansmen, prostitutes, and the up and coming leaders of the fascist governments of Italy and Germany. His intrepid adventures find him in the arid wilds of the Sahara, among addicts and hookers in Istanbul, upon some of the worlds finest yachts, imprisoned as a sex slave in Morocco, and as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. Other than his chameleon-like adaptability, the only other constants in Pyat’s life are his cocaine habit, his fascist sympathies, his certainty in the supremacy of Mother Russia, her Church and his platonic relationship with fellow survivor, actress and dancehall singer Miss Cornelius.

Pyat is part bumbling fool, part intentionally ignorant, and part victim of circumstance. Never acknowledging that he might be wrong, he forges ahead through the century, always choosing to side with those he thinks will be the victors. He is not a hero, and his humanity is not the stuff that happy tales are made of. His view seems to be that there are those who are worthy of life and those who aren’t. Like so many of his century’s denizens, he considers those not worthy to be those who don’t look like him. Likewise, he claims no hatred toward those he considers subhuman, just a lack of concern or compassion for their plight. In a previous piece where I reviewed the first book in this quartet, I wrote that “… Upon further thought, it is exactly that which makes Pyat unattractive that ensures his durability in a century of hate, genocide and disaster.” Like Brecht’s Mutter Courage minus her overbearing cynicism, Moorcock’s Pyat is a metaphor for modern humanity. Because he does not share the cynicism of Brecht’s character however, he is even more representative of our species’ current manifestation; too willing to believe the lies of the powerful and go along with their schemes and battles over land and ideas.

One of Pyat’s fixations is that he is an engineer of transcendent ability. Beginning with his youth in Kiev, he designs and, when funding is available, builds airplanes of different sizes and functions. Never tiring of touting his engineering designs and perceived abilities in the field, he carries his favorite designs wherever he travels. No matter what circumstances he finds himself in—luxury accommodations or a dank prison cell, one of his primary concerns is always the whereabouts of those designs. The unwavering presence of Pyat’s airplane designs and the interest shown in them by capitalists, state bureaucrats, revolutionaries, and reactionaries alike raise a question regarding the role played by technology in our time as surely as the development of cinematic technology discussed in the quartet explores the relation of that technology to its role in the propagating the myths of modern society, both private and governmental.

One might wonder how this litany of prejudice, arrogance and wrongheadedness can be told in a manner that is delightful to read. The fact that it is is testament to Moorcock’s ability to weave a tale. The situations Pyat finds himself in are amusing and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. The product is multidimensional, longwinded yet not stagnant, and as colorful as any cloth taken from a Turkish rug weaver’s loom. There are numerous women, all of whom are equivalent in desires, intelligence and understanding as Pyat himself. The fascist leaders who play a significant role in the fourth book of the quartet are portrayed as simultaneously clever, creative and depraved. Pyat’s willingness to make excuses for their behavior is not of their design, but from his desire to believe. That phenomenon in itself comes incredibly close to defining the essence of modern man; despite so much evidence to the contrary, we insist on maintaining faith in our leaders’ ultimate goodness. Conversely, we refuse to acknowledge the possibility, no the likelihood, that their weaknesses are greater than ours. Indeed, much of their strength lies in that refusal, thereby providing these men and women with a means to manipulate our actions and even our thoughts. Michael Moorcock’s production of the fictional Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski’s journals is a task whose reward lies in its enjoyment by the reader. Immerse thyself.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Pauline Murphy
Unburied Truth: Exposing the Church’s Iron Chains on Ireland
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Franklin Lamb
Update from Madaya
Dan Bacher
Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Louis Proyect
What Caused the Holodomor?
Max Mastellone
Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
David Yearsley
Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail