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Books: Westward Ha the Laughter of Carthage

3 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

The author of dozens of books, Michael Moorcock, 45, is a British writing machine who seems never to have been slowed by a rejection slip. He is aligned with the writers of science fiction’s so-called new wave, who have tried to merge futurism into the mainstream of modern literature. The Laughter of Carthage is a formidable example, a work in which science and technology are subordinated to narrative techniques not usually found in popular fiction. The style is better appreciated when the novel is considered as a continuation of Moorcock’s Byzantium Endures (1982), a work of similar grand design that introduced the author’s crank hero, Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski. His opening line of the sequel: “I am one of the great inventors of my age. Rejected by its birthplace, my genius would otherwise be universally acknowledged.”

Both books are cast as Pyatnitski’s memoirs of a life uprooted by the Russian Revolution. He brags of his exploits as a Don Cossack; he claims pure Russian ; blood and a batch of patents for airplanes and automobiles. But one can never be sure that anything Pyatnitski says is true. He is certainly an egomaniac and very likely mad; he is also a reactionary Tom Swift, an anti-Semite, a sybarite and a paranoiac with a gargantuan appetite for cocaine.

Known simply as Pyat or cryptically as Pallenberg, Moorcock’s dubious hero was born on the first day of 1900 to a laundress and a “radical” father who stayed around just long enough to have his son circumcised. The mark of Abraham is Pyat’s secret shame and key to a mordant joke underlying The Laughter of Carthage. There is enough internal evidence (allusions and outbursts of Yiddish) to conclude that Pyatnitski’s gene pool is thoroughly integrated. Rabid anti-Semitism is his way of denying the past and advancing his career as scientist and gentleman. There is also ample indication of a thin line between deceit and self-delusion.

To sustain such a character for nearly 1,000 pages, Moorcock provides an exotic itinerary, a robust cast of opportunists and scoundrels, and a series of dangerous adventures and sexual escapades. Pyat’s first stop on his flight from Bolshevism is Istanbul, a teeming cosmopolis of thieves and whores but also a site idealized as the bastion of a once glorious Christendom. From there, the grotesque innocent moves west through Rome, Paris, New York City and Hollywood.

Movieland is the ideal roost for a young refugee with big ideas. “Do not listen to the envious and the insensate,” warns Pyat. “The illusion of Hollywood is thoroughly tangible.” Anything is possible with the Old World in ruins, and Pyat will try anything. He buys a 13-year-old prostitute and reinvents her as a lost soul mate from his Russian childhood; he tours the U.S. as a lecturer for the Ku Klux Klan.

Moorcock takes large risks. An egomaniac with repugnant views is hard to take at great length. There is a predictable pattern to Pyat’s adventures as child of the century. But there are rewarding detours: Moorcock’s lush descriptions of landscapes and the world’s great cities, and a parade of characters that would feel at home in the novels of Dickens, Nabokov and Henry Miller.

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