Allthatsleft Book Club #12: The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms

by Ray_North on July 31, 2014

Unknown-6So, there I was sat on my sun lounger round the pool of an extremely pleasant Maltese hotel. The kids had gone off to play in a table tennis tournament and Mrs North was happily slumbering near by – brilliant. I reckoned I had about an hour and a half of me time with the wonderful story Johan Thoms. Sheer joy. The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is comfortably the best book I have read this year.

As I settled down I took a cursory look at what my fellow sun-bathers were reading – behind me, a fat bloke with an unfortunately small pair of trunks was reading an economics text book, which I wouldn’t have predicted, by his side, a woman I took to be his wife, was immersed in a world of vampires and dwarves; whilst across the pool, a man with tattoos was solving crimes in some grey Scandinavian city. I pitied them, because, I was about to re-enter the epic tale and wonderful world of Johan Thoms.

I tell you this – if you only read one book a year – read this one; if you dismiss my occasional book reviews as the inane prattlings of a fool, put your prejudices to one side and grasp this recommendation with two fists – because this is a truly brilliant book.

Johan Thoms is the unfortunate young Bosnian who, in June 2014, had the misfortune to drive Archduke Franz Ferdinand (funny how that now makes me think of a briefly good Scottish Indie band) and his pregnant wife down the wrong road in Sarajevo, an event that led to them being assassinated by the Serbian Nationalist, Princip.

Thoms’ life is immediately changed forever: prior to his mistake, he was a talented student embroiled in a wonderfully passionate affair with the beautiful Lorelei, afterwards he is filled with guilt as he blames himself for the death of the Archduke, and then, as Europe disintegrates into war, the deaths of millions. Unable to cope he runs away from Sarajevo, befriends, then cures a boy, Cicero, who becomes his buddy for the rest of his life and embarks upon an Odyssey that takes him across Europe to Italy, Portugal, then Cadiz at the time of the Spanish Civil War, before escaping to England at the time of the blitz. Thoms is a chess master, an author, a pharmacist, a chronicler and a drinker of repute. At times he is a philosopher of great sensitivity and insight, but, the events of June 1914 are never far away from his thoughts, he struggles with each and every catastrophe that befalls the twentieth century, a struggle that prevents him from returning to Lorelei who spends her twentieth century trying to find the one and only love of her life at times coming agonizingly close to finding him.

His journey is an epic kaleidoscope as author Ian Thornton brilliantly intertwines actual historical events and characters with fiction and half-truth (the scene in a Cadiz where Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell get drunk with Thoms is genius). The overall effect is utterly compelling – fuelled by Thornton’s superb prose that is at times hilarious, erotic and moving, this is a novel that everyone should read. It reminds me a bit of those blockbusters that became everyone’s favourite in the 1990’s, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birdsong, in that it effortlessly creates a landscape that is utterly credible and populated by characters who you want to get to know.

Truly brilliant.

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