The political implications of superheroes existing in the real world are not exactly underexplored, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen left the bar raised at a near impossible height. Despite the clear influence of Moore’s seminal tome, Lavie Tidhar’s novel The Violent Century finds as much inspiration in John Le Carre’s grim tales of British espionage.
Patriotism is a burden, conflict doesn’t end with war and humanity is quietly folded away for an intangible greater good.
The central conceit is that in the early Thirties, a machine turns a select group of people all over the world into superheroes – or ubermenschen. As World War II begins, each nation uses their supermen and women differently. The Americans turn them into brash propaganda tools as much as weapons, the Germans take them to concentration camps for further study, and the British turn theirs into spies.
The Violent Century begins in the present day, with Agent Fogg being called back in to answer for an act he committed at the close of WWII. Over a series of flashbacks, we see the war through Fogg’s eyes, as well as the division of Europe and brief sojourns to Vietnam and Afghanistan.
The level of detail with which Tidhar fills his novel ensures that the events he is using as his setting feel convincing. Like Le Carre’s best novels, the world of espionage isn’t glamorous or exciting; it’s a grim, cold and lonely place. The author does a lot with a relatively minimalist style, and he envelops us in Transylvanian forests with Count Dracula’s transformed descendant and the frozen battleground of Minsk without ever slowing down.
One of the sacrifices that seems to have been made is that the supporting characters don’t feel as fleshed out as they could have been. This works well in the case of Fogg’s partner Oblivion, who remains an intriguing and distant but sympathetic figure. However, the rest of Fogg’s team are painted in quick, interesting strokes, but very little more. Characters like the acerbic Spit (whose power is what it sounds like) and Mrs Tinkle (not in this case) would have benefited from more detail.
It does occasionally feel as though we’re rushed too quickly through a story that covers so much territory, but on the other hand it’s impressive how much ground Tidhar covers. By the time ubermenschen and Jerry Siegel are sharing the witness stand at a Sixties-set trial of a Nazi criminal, it’s clear that Tidhar has successfully merged his two worlds.
At the centre of this is the question, ‘What makes a hero?’ The supermen of Tidhar’s novel are forced to commit terrible acts in the name of the greater good, and stand by and watch as terrible acts are committed for the same reason. As well as being a wonderfully drawn and detailed historical espionage tale, The Violent Century is ultimately a very human story. It’s gripping, imaginative and, finally, moving.