The author’s earlier historical novel Infamy blasted away the conventions with a frenetic pace and vivid irreverence. It was a graphic, yet also darkly humorous, tale of early Van Diemen’s Land. In this latest outing we return to Australia but only after a series of Daliesque adventures through the Napoleonic Wars, South America and the South Pacific before culminating in a final flourish a century later in Europe.
Johannes Meyer’s troubles start the day Napoleon marches triumphantly into Berlin in 1806. Usually found discussing philosophy in a local coffee house, Johannes gets distracted by the sexy waitress. Their coupling is witnessed by young Elisabeth von Hoffman. As she and Johannes look at one another, they both experience a type of déjà vu. This enigmatic brief encounter loosely pins the novel together.
Johannes is dragooned into the Prussian Army and spends the next few years deserting and being recaptured by the French and the English. Elisabeth takes up with one of Napoleon’s generals and follows an erratic path of her own. Many other individuals go on journeys in a zigzag fashion. Among the most memorable are the American Wesley Lewis, Jr., and slave Mr. Hendrik, who sell electric eels; Johannes’ philosopher friend Kruger, who is obsessed with finding a black Josephine; and Claus von Rolt, who has a thing for shrunken heads.
The historical background is crisp and colourful, but this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. An appreciation of black humour will help with some of the more macabre passages, such as hamstringing and quasi-scientific experiments on slaves using the original French Revolution guillotine.
This novel can be read as either just a savage romp through history or as a “sliding doors” allegory on luck and chance in fortunes. Either way, it is a highly entertaining ride.