Your 20th century boy

In the context of yesterday’s comments about the self-justifying self, I’ve been thinking about Michael Moorcock’s ‘Between the Wars’ series of books (‘Byzantium Endures’, ‘The Laughter of Carthage’, ‘Jerusalem Commands’, ‘The Vengeance of Rome’), dealing with the adventures of Maxim Pyat in the 20th Century.

Maxim’s a fascinating character. Both naïve adventurer and lethal manipulator, he at once lives through and embodies some of the worst parts of the last century. From an Eastern European starting point, he travels the world, encountering the best and (far more often) the worst of humanity at every point.

In narrative terms, Moorcock uses him as a kind of fictional mouse-pointer, guiding him around the world to highlight the moments and processes that led up to the Holocaust.

This focus on history makes the books didactic in the best sense; they support a richer, deeper understanding of the 20th Century, one that sees the Holocaust not as an isolated incident but as part of a broader pattern of deep inhumanity that in many ways is still continuing.

But there’s more to Maxim than mere didacticism. As the narrator of all four books, he’s a very developed character in his own right. Key to understanding him is realising just how he manages his own story.

The gulf between his self-image and his actions is huge. His behaviour shows him up as being variously a con-man, drug addict, thief, rapist, pederast and worse. But he consistently presents and understands himself as a thwarted visionary and frustrated romantic.

That broken self awareness is rooted in his situation. Pyat treats others badly; he often presents himself as having been treated worse. His self-deception is in part a function of those perceived or actual brutalities, a necessary defence mechanism as he becomes a kind of emblematic punchbag for the worst that the 20th Century had to offer.

That self deception builds inevitably to the final book’s emotionally shattering climax, but it also performs a valuable thematic function. It helps explore how victimhood can be the most dangerous mask of all, offering a perpetual and immutable moral high ground that legitimises the worst brutalities as a protective response to threat.

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