by Ian Thornton
300 pages, The Friday Project
Review by: J. S. Colley
Tale: 1) a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted
At the age of seven, Johan Thoms outwits a chess master, but on June 28, 1914, at the age of twenty, he discovers he can’t drive a car in reverse. While chauffeuring the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, he takes a wrong turn and haplessly delivers the couple into the hands of an assassin, and thus, (in his mind) starts a world war. Unable to face the ramifications of this horrific blunder, he flees Sarajevo into a life filled with regret and self-blame (but not without adventure).
This is a “tale,” of course, and while the assassination of the archduke and his wife is historical fact, there is no historical Johan Thoms. In truth, historians can’t be sure who was chauffeuring the royal couple that day. (Was it Leopold Lojka or Franz Urban? The debate is still not settled.)
When Johan takes flight from his nightmare, he leaves behind his eccentric (at best) father and loving mother, his closest friend, his flamboyant benefactor, and the love of his life, the beautiful Lorelie. As he journeys out of the city, he begins to acquire a menagerie of new friends (including the faithful dog, Alfredo) and eventually crosses paths with many of the “players” of that era. (How could one not mention Hemingway when discussing the Spanish Civil War? Or Dorothy Parker?) The history of that time is used as a vehicle to deliver an epic tale.
I could ask questions about why Johan does (or doesn’t do) certain things but, to quote the book, “‘Exaggeration is naturally occurring in the DNA of the cadaver known as the tale.’ [...] this part of the game was not to be taken lightly.” (Also, if I posed these questions here, I’d have to include a spoiler alert.)
This is a story born of tragedy, of luckless blunders, of faults in perception and judgment, of misplaced guilt and missed opportunity, of squandered love. But, for all Johan lost, he made up for in his newfound friendships. For all the ugliness of that day on a street in Sarajevo, Johan meets much beauty as he runs from it—from the angelic women who nurse him, to Cicero, to the Hooligans, and even the perceptive dog, Alfredo. He makes a positive impact on the lives of so many, and who knows if he would have been able to do this if he’d stayed behind? Is this his redemption?
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is clever and erudite, rich in detail and complexity without taking itself too seriously. It’s a tour de force of craftsmanship. It has elements of magical realism, and themes abound. The humor is quiet, sublime. The reader has to pay attention to be in on the joke. Some of the references, either overt or covert, require a level of knowledge that not all readers will possess, and I’m sure I missed a few. Asides, oblique mentions, footnotes, all pull the reading into the narrative—as if it is a true story being recounted and not just a work of fiction. This type of rich, lush book is uncommon, not only due to a rarity of talent but, as the author revealed in an interview, it was seven years in the making. Well worth the wait.
As a footnote about the history behind this fiction: I do not believe the driver of the car carrying the royal couple accidently turned down the wrong street. It is too big of a coincidence. However, I suppose bigger ironies—coincidences—have happened in real life. I read on the Internet (but how reliable is anything you read there?) that Lojka, one of the men attributed to being the driver, was given a stipend and opened a hotel where he displayed the bloodstained suspenders of the archduke and an item of the duchess’. If he had been innocent, would he do such a thing, especially since an innocent child was killed in the process? Perhaps so, the world is so wicked. But I prefer to believe the driver would have felt some remorse, some sense of guilt, like the fictional Johan.