- A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, by John Boyne. Doubleday. $32.99.
"On the night that I was born, my father slaughtered a dozen infant boys, sons of our neighbours and friends." The speaker is the narrator throughout the two millennia covered in this story; his father is a Roman centurion named Marinus, carrying out an order from King Herod in the year 1 AD in Palestine. We never learn his name, but his first person narrative continues through more than 2000 years in places as diverse as Eritrea, Mexico, New Zealand and Norway.
The names of the characters change with the geography: Marinus becomes Marok, Marvan and Magne among others. The narrator's mother changes from Floriana to Folani to Flavia. His brother will be Jonah or Joo or Johnny; his son will be Rafiki or Rafe or Ricardo. The reader will take time to work out these changes and indeed to pick up the central story, which involves a long search for revenge against a cousin - Hakje or Harry or Hernan or Hachirou.
It takes a little effort to get used to the changes in time and place from one chapter to the next, though the transition gets easier as the story progresses. The glimpses you get into the history of the Roman empire, the monasteries of Europe and the East, the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the exploitation of native peoples by European adventurers and the development of art and literature in all countries, make this a journey through world history. It would be easy to imagine a major portion of a school curriculum based around the materials covered here; that it is presented in the polished prose of a practised storyteller would be an added bonus.
"I began to wonder whether aggression was the normal state for our species," the narrator says on one occasion and that is a central theme of a story that is a gallop through world history from Caesar to Attila to Hitler to Trump. The story allows our hero to encounter on his journey people like Michelangelo, Columbus and Shakespeare - even Ned Kelly.
John Boyne made his name with novels like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Absolutist and The House of Special Purpose: wonderful stories in their own right, but this is in a different league. Comparing the author of those works, fine as they are, with the writer of this one would be like comparing Agatha Christie with Tolstoy.
Academics may nitpick details, inevitable in a book of this size. Others may point out similarities with the Greek or Norse legends - or note the contrast with Joyce, who needed only one day for his masterpiece. For this reviewer, it was an opportunity to see where the novel could go if there were people as brave as John Boyne.
With A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, Boyne has taken the novel to a higher plane.