The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar – review

Tidhar synthesises the geeky and the political in a vision of world events that breaks new superhero ground

At the Edinburgh international book festival this year, I gave a masterclass entitled "How to Read Batman" (and yes, I did so dressed as The Riddler, as the internet attests). In the discussion afterwards, a very interesting point emerged: we have wonderful stories about Batman in comics, in films, in TV shows, in games … but where is the Batman novel? Is the superhero story in some ways anathema to prose fiction?

There have been superhero "meta‑novels", most notably Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude. There are a few examples of novels featuring superheroes: Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes is a typically witty piece which uses superpowers as conceits for the breakdown of a romance (the non-super-hero Tom has been turned invisible by Hypno, the ex of his wife, The Perfectionist). Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is a gem of a novel, especially for the sections narrated by Doctor Impossible, who, after 12 failed attempts at world domination, is finally ready with a plot that involves "a mirror, a book, a doll, and a jewel" and who dispenses such life-wisdom as: "When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes."

Lavie Tidhar's new novel breaks new ground in terms of the "superhero novel". Tidhar is known for his ingenious World Fantasy award-winning novel, Osama, in which a private investigator is hired to find out about Mike Longshott, a pulp writer whose novels feature a fictional terrorist called Osama; his only clue is the meaningless date (in his universe) of 11 September. The Violent Century extends this eerie synthesis of the geeky and the political, conjuring a version of the 20th and 21st century where everything we know still happened, only with added superheroes.

As the novel opens, it is the present day, and we meet the "Old Man", the head of Britain's superhero force – an equivalent to MI6 called The Retirement Bureau. He calls a meeting with operative Henry Fogg, which is facilitated by Fogg's former best friend, Oblivion. Something has happened which requires the Old Man to hear again Fogg's account of his time working for the Bureau, in Minsk, in Romania, in Paris and in Berlin during the second world war. That particular something is the re-emergence of a Nazi superhero, codenamed Schneesturm. The world has been held in balance by the equal distribution of superheroes: we get to meet the American superheroes (all braggadoccio and hypocrisy), Soviet superheroes (not coping well with either alcoholism or the collapse of the Warsaw Pact) and Nazi superheroes, most chillingly the Wolfman, whose particular talent is to negate the talents of those around him. It transpires that neither Mengele nor Von Braun was the most dangerous scientist under the Nazi regime. Dr Vomacht unleashed the force that created the superheroes, and even though he has been tried in Israel after the war, there might be a way to discover how he did what he did.

The novel turns out to be a melancholy sort of love story, but the world-building is so profoundly smart that one can easily forgive and even thrill to the slightly predictable tale of amours, betrayals, repressed adoration and stifled expediency. Comics, of course, have been doing "what if they were real?" for ages, from Alan Moore's Watchmen to Pat Mills's Marshal Law. But the politics in Tidhar's novel are very much about real-world subterfuge such as Operation Paperclip, whereby Nazis were relocated in the US, and the post‑cold war collapse of certainties (one hero ends up gun-running in Chechnya, another in Africa). There is one laugh-out-loud then exhale and shudder moment when, on 11 September, we get the line "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it ... it's a plane."

There are nods to the comics cognoscenti throughout. I loved that the definitive work on the Ubermensch was written by Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, and that one of the witnesses at Vomacht's trial is Stanley Martin Lieber, also known as Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spiderman, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. But the truly clever thing here is that while the reader has to suspend disbelief in the existence of superheroes, the superheroes themselves struggle to believe in the war, and especially the Holocaust: repeatedly they refer to it as being like a fiction rather than reality. The war becomes, again, something unthinkable. Using fantasy to reassert the awful reality of the 20th century is a smart piece of defamiliarisation.

Contributor

Stuart Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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