Saturday, 28 July 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Laughter of Carthage (1984)

Edition: Phoenix, 1994
Review number: 887

The second of the Pyat novels - centred around a minor character who originally appeared in the Cornelius Quartet - takes his story from his escape from the collapsing Russia of the civil war which followed the 1917 revolution to a new life in the States. He is as unpleasant a character as ever, definite proof (if any were needed) that the narrators of novels do not have to reflect the views of the author. In this novel, Pyat becomes involved with the Klu Klux Klan, and this is just an extension of his racist views from his earlier condemnation of Jews and Turks. The racism of our past is easily forgotten; it can be seen in the writers who have survived - Kipling, Buchan and Haggard, and to a greater extent two of the most popular twentieth century authors of all, Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie - but is even clearer in those who have now basically been forgotten or whose politics have been overshadowed by what they did (such as film director D.W. Griffith).

It is relatively easy to see why Moorcock wanted to write about Pyat despite his lack of sympathy with the kind of views he would give the character. It can be very difficult for those who would be called liberals to understand the way that people like Pyat think, and Moorcock has certainly managed to give an insight into the paranoid world of conspiracy theories these people often espouse. (The title refers to this; Carthage is Pyat's term for the "decadent" Eastern and African influences which in his view were at this time constantly trying to bring down the virtuous white civilization.) Ironically, while constantly bemoaning the way in which most people have been hoodwinked into thinking these conspiracies non-existent, Pyat is constantly being the innocent dupe - assuming his memoirs to be honest - of others who use him to front fraudulent schemes.

The von Bek novels, particularly The City in the Autumn Stars, demonstrated that Moorcock had the ability to write great historical novels as well as atmospheric fantasy. In the Pyat series, this talent is fully realised. In The Laughter of Carthage, we have a meticulously researched insight into the past. There may be similarities to Flashman, but these are mainly because of the antiheroic central character; this series is stronger, more hard hitting.

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