The King of the Frauds

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Michael Moorcock had a fair amount of difficulty persuading his publishers to accept the Between the Wars series, a four-volume series of historical novels set in the inter-War years without supernatural, fantastic or science fiction elements. Begun after he completed the core Jerry Cornelius novels, the first book – Byzantium Endures – was actually finished in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1981 that Moorcock could convince anyone to publish it. (Indeed, the final two books haven’t been published in the US at all – PM Press are due to bring them out this year as part of a reprint of the whole series.) The difficulties he faced were twofold: firstly, the novels cannot even be mistaken for genre fiction, situating them entirely outside Moorcock’s stamping grounds up to this point; secondly, they constitute the paranoid, self-aggrandising biography of a proudly unrepentant fascist.

Specifically, the conceit of the series that it is a real man’s biography that Moorcock has reluctantly agreed to edit. Colonel Pyat, AKA Max Peters, AKA the Old Pole, AKA a confusing variety of other pseudonyms was, as far as Moorcock and most of his contemporaries were aware, a perennial feature of life in Notting Hill, the eccentric, outspoken but ultimately harmless owner of a second-hand clothing shop specialising in fancy uniforms – very popular in the Swinging Sixties thanks to the whole Sgt. Pepper deal. One of the oldest friends of Mrs Cornelius, a formidable local figure who had died recently and whose family had been the subject of a muck-raking series of books by Moorcock, Pyat appeared to be under the impression that Mrs Cornelius was a global celebrity; deciding that the world needed a memoir of his interactions with her, Pyat cajoled Moorcock into sitting with him and taping his reminiscences of her so that Moorcock could knock Pyat’s recollections together into a book.

As it happens, Pyat’s musings focused far more on his own life story than they ever did on Mrs Cornelius, but Moorcock found himself repelled by Pyat’s odious personality and opinions and was tempted to give up the project. All this changed after the Notting Hill Carnival in 1977, when a group of black youths entered Pyat’s shop seeking charity donations; this proved overstimulating for Pyat, who had a heart attack and died on the spot. Coming into possession of Pyat’s papers, Moorcock decided to press on and finish the job – a task he wouldn’t complete until 2006. The novel we get, then, consists of a mixture of material from the tapes and Pyat’s papers, lashed together into a sensible order by Moorcock and edited to improve their English and scale back (but not excise) the more incomprehensible sections. They reveal a life story which begins in Tsarist Kiev and takes us through a maelstron of war, revolution, child prostitution, pedophilia, rape, murder, drug addiction, pornography, slavery, racism, fascism, Nazism and persecution.

On top of all that, the series is a comedy.

Byzantium Endures

Pyat is proud to tell us that he is as old as the 20th Century, having been born on the 1st January 1900… Well, the 14th if you insist on using this newfangled Gregorian calendar. Raised in Kiev, Pyat grew up encouraged by his mother not to get embroiled in the sort of silly revolutionary ideas that were apparently the downfall of his father, who supposedly died as a result of his chasing after idealistic revolutionary goals. So, our little man duly learns to love the Tsar and Mother Russia and to dream of a wonderful Pan-Slavic empire, the successor to Byzantium, which could close itself off from the pernicious influence of the Jewish menace. Jews are bad, you see. Everyone knows it. That’s why Pyat is glad to be of proud Cossack stock with not a drop of Jewish blood in his body. So what if people keep assuming he’s Jewish? So what if members of his extended family like to frequent Jewish drinking dens and are intimately connected with the Jewish quarter in Odessa? So what if Pyat was circumcised by his father for purely hygienic reasons in a culture where such a reason to perform circumcisions is – according to Pyat – vanishingly rare and creates an enormous social liability for the child? So what if Pyat seems to have learned Yiddish from somewhere – it doesn’t count if he refuses to speak it, right? Pyat. Isn’t. Jewish. He insists on this point. A lot. Over and over again. Pyat takes “not being a Jew” to extremes which those of us who are comfortable and secure in our not-Jewishness would consider excessive; in addition to this, he has a certain way of consistently misunderstanding things that other family members say which might undermine his portrayal of himself as hailing from good Cossack stock.

Pyat’s zealous anti-semitism isn’t the only thing he goes overboard with; in fact, he takes more or less every one of his interests to extremes. He’s not just interested in science and engineering, he’s a budding inventor who as a young man creates his very own flying machine, which totally flew on its first launch and didn’t humiliatingly crash to the ground, honest. It is only natural that he should want to further his studies by attending a technical college in St. Petersburg. But for complicated reasons which are never explained to him, his admission requires a number of unusual measures (including creating a false identity) arranged by his Uncle Semya, whose involvement in organised crime Pyat denies almost as thoroughly as he denies being Jewish, despite Pyat describing incidents which make it obvious that Semya’s a crook. Visiting his totally-not-a-gangster Uncle in Odessa whilst the preliminaries are sorted out, Pyat is introduced to the pleasures of cocaine, sex, and sex whilst high on cocaine, hobbies he would derive decades of enjoyment from. St. Petersburg soon offers him plenty of both, but shortly after Pyat has completed his education his opportunity to use his skill as an inventor to win World War I for the Tsar is dashed. Instead, revolution and civil war convulse the nation, and to survive Pyat has to rise to the occasion and show another side of his character – that of a treacherous swine who thinks only of himself and has no loyalty to anyone (with the possible exceptions of his mother and his childhood friend Esmé… well, until looking out for them becomes inconvenient for Pyat, or until they tell him things he doesn’t want to hear).

Moorcock goes out of the way to prime the reader to mistrust and dislike Pyat in the introduction to this one, even saying that he was inclined to give up trying to record Pyat’s reminiscences altogether due to the racist rants Pyat comes out with. But it rapidly becomes clear that Pyat isn’t solely some curmudgeonly old bigot, or a first-generation fascist who stays out of neo-fascist movements only because of his eccentric viewpoints and his belief that they are a little too socialist for his liking – though he is both of those things. Nor can his more unlikely boasts be easily brushed off as the exaggerated claims of a con man, though it seems likely that he is such a thing and that he has over his life made a habit of misrepresenting his credentials and achievements.

No, on top of all that Pyat is deeply unwell. A few pages reproduced from his original handwritten notes come across as disjointed Timecube-esque word soup. As the novel progresses his various tangents shift from being lucidly proposed but factually deficient conspiracy theories and bigoted observations on life, and increasingly become incoherent, delirious ramblings. His recollection of key events at points become too absurd to credit, and there’s stages where I wondered whether Pyat was consciously repeating the lies he told others about his achievements, or whether he’d hit the point where he’d told the lie for so long that he actually believed it. At other points Pyat seems completely unable to piece together the awful implications of something he has just said. One might be tempted to suggest that age-related dementia was to blame, except if the young Pyat’s behaviour were even half as erratic as old Pyat claims it was I have to wonder whether he wasn’t profoundly confused from early on.

Moorcock drives the point home in the narration of Pyat’s final exam at the polytechnic. According to Pyat, exams were taken orally back in the day before your assembled professors – with a packed audience of your fellow candidates watching. In the exams leading up to his final Pyat has behaved more or less conventionally and gave the examiners the answers they were expecting, but this time he wants to really blow their socks off, partly to prove that he’s a super-genius and partly to show up a fairly conservative professor who’s antagonised him. So, after a hefty dose of cocaine to help him give a stirring performance, Pyat launches into a long, wide-ranging speech at his finals in which he proposes a slew of futuristic technologies which could help the war effort (World War I having just about started at this point). If we are to believe Pyat, his speech is a triumph. Professor Merkuloff, the bane of his existence, is completely humbled. The dean of the college declares that Pyat must have a Special Diploma in his honour. The massed students cheer and clap and declare him the new Galileo.

Bullshit they did, Pyat.

It’s clear from the context that this oral exam isn’t a defence of a doctoral dissertation or anything weighty like that; it’s the sort of an undergraduate-level exam in a science or engineering subject which just isn’t the time or place to wow people with the originality of your ideas. The point of the exam is to knuckle down and answer the questions given to you, and in doing so display your command of the methodology you’ve been taught. Even in this case, where evidently the undergrads are expected to deliver a brief talk on a subject of their choosing, it’s not the appropriate time for wild theorising or airy speculation – the point is to show an ability to research a subject and understand what you’ve read, not to invent something on the spot. Maybe the sort of showboating Pyat claims he indulged in would be more appropriate at the doctoral level – though if I had come up with several bold new theories in the process of my doctoral viva the board would have asked me why I didn’t put them in my thesis – but it’s very clear that ambitiousness and excellence aren’t really expected of Pyat, since he’s taking an undergraduate-level course at what isn’t even the most prestigious technical college in St. Petersburg before by professors who just want him to show them he can go through the motions and perform as expected.

Even if you accept that the professors might get excited enough by a really whizzo candidate rewriting the whole field of mechanical engineering before their eyes to forget that they’re meant to be marking him according to entirely different criteria, it’s never appropriate in an exam to launch into bizarre drug-fuelled rants about how you deserve a government job and a degree and you can stop the war single handed with your amazing inventions; that’s the sort of thing which just never goes down well unless you’re an actor auditioning for a mad scientist part. If the audience at Pyat’s exam did erupt with noise, they were surely laughing at Pyat, not with him, and if Professor Merkuloff were facepalming he wasn’t doing it at his own failure to identify Pyat as a genius.

Now, this promise of a Special Diploma forms the basis for Pyat doing such things as blagging a doctorate from the Ukrainian nationalist authorities later on, so it could be that Pyat is wheeling out a well-worn lie, consciously or unconsciously. But there’s aspects of the story which make me suspect that this is also a sign of Pyat not having the toughest of grips on reality even in his prime. (Of course, both could be true – he could be so immersed in his lies that he’s made himself unable to relate to the truth.) If he were merely presenting this story to con us, you would think he would tone down the bit where one of the academics helps him into a taxi, takes him to the home of Marya and Lena (two acquaintances of Pyat’s who he is lodging with and believe him to be a romantic and daring revolutionary), and gives firm advice that he’s been overdoing it and should lie down. After all, the way it’s presented here sounds a lot more like the way a concerned member of staff might treat a student who has just had a spectacular public meltdown than the way an academic might reward a student who has just turned in a virtuoso performance in an exam. You would think that if Pyat were deliberately lying he’d leave that part out altogether, or at least get a bit more creative with the academic’s dialogue so it doesn’t boil down to “the lad’s had a nervous breakdown, give him rest until he can pull himself together”.

Similarly, if Pyat were just lying to us in order to make himself look good, he probably wouldn’t mention his rape of Marya and Lena.

Not that he ever identifies it as a rape. He’s been carrying on a flirtation with both of them for some time at this point so, emboldened by what he perceives by his success and still high on cocaine, he decides now’s the time to bring that to a head. Things tumble out of control rapidly, at which point Pyat’s narration has one of its most sustained bursts of incoherence yet, making exactly what goes down slightly mysterious, but it ends with both girls bloodied and weeping and Pyat ranting about how they won’t accept the wonderful enlightening gift he’s offering them. The wretch wanders off into the night, has a threesome with some gay lovers he’s befriended, and refuses to admit that he’s behaved in a remotely inappropriate way.

I know what you’re probably thinking. Moorcock and rape: between Gloriana and The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming he didn’t exactly have a good track record with it in the late 1970s, did he? In fact, I think he does a markedly better job of handling the subject here. In those earlier novels the stories build up to an outrage (a rape/attempted rape in Gloriana and a beating/forced drugging in Transformation – precisely which depends on what edition you’re reading), which is the culmination of the plot and – more disturbingly – seems to have fairly positive results. Here, however, it’s a part of a longer process of dissecting the hellish morass of Pyat’s life rather than being the sole point of the story, and the intention here isn’t to make weird generalisations about women’s sexuality so much as to represent the peak of Pyat’s pre-Revolutionary outrages, as well as to illustrate just how cracked Pyat is as a narrator.

Young Pyat viciously rapes two women who trusted him. He does this either because he just plain decides he wants to, or because he’s too horrifyingly broken to comprehend what he’s doing; which isn’t clear. What is clear is that old Pyat works himself up into a frenzied, self-justifying rant narrating this in which he is absolutely desperate to deny that he had done anything wrong. This is the defining feature of Pyat’s narrative: he’s engaged in a hectic scramble to justify his actions and deflect any blame for a life littered with appalling betrayals. Of all of Moorcock’s preceding protagonists he’s probably most like Ryan from The Black Corridor, who also divorces himself from reality entirely rather than facing up to the consequences of his actions. As far as Pyat’s concerned, if anything bad happened, it was never his fault, always someone else’s. Probably the victim’s, unless a Jew did it. And besides, the victim was an idiot who came to a bad end anyway. Also Pyat wouldn’t do shit like that, that’s the sort of stuff Jews do. Pyat is not a Jew, so Pyat couldn’t have done it. Also it was totally the right thing to do at the time so you shouldn’t blame Pyat for it. Pyat had no choice in the matter, not when you consider the principles at stake. Also there’s nothing wrong with it.

The real blow to the gut comes when the revolution kicks off. By this point most readers will have already written Pyat off as a completely detestable human being; but when the social order completely decays, Pyat begins to seem positively normal. Not that he’s that much of a better person – he betrays a whole bunch of people to try and scam his way out of the war zone, and when he is reunited with Esmé after the conflict separates them he point-blank refuses to process what she tells him about what befalls her. However, the vicious interfactional fighting which is tearing Ukraine to pieces unleashes all manner of atrocity, which Pyat is frequently both on the receiving end of and a perpetrator of himself. It is a world in which only psychopaths, sociopaths, grifters and bullies could thrive. None of this is enough to make Pyat a fully sympathetic character – the “sym” part just doesn’t quite manifest – but Moorcock paints a grim irony in the fact that the very character traits that make Pyat a danger to himself and others in peacetime are the ones which let him keep his head above water when chaos is unleashed.

Pyat constructs death rays for the nationalists (which, of course, fail to function for reasons entirely beyond his control when it comes to the crunch) whilst blowing his wages on prostitutes (the younger the better) and telling his mother and childhood friend that he’s doing important work to save Kiev. He is effectively enslaved by a Red-aligned Cossack and wriggles his way out by ingratiating himself with the Bolshevik commissars and trying to get the individual in question shot. (He actually only succeeds in getting the Cossack who tries to befriend him shot instead, but there you go.) Later he scams his way into convincing the White Russians he’s one of their intelligence offers and gets a gig debriefing Red prisoners, and unflinchingly orders the execution one of the intellectuals who saved him from the Cossack executed. He then hops on a boat to the West, vaguely promising to send for his mother later on when things calm down without really doing the due diligence necessary to establish whether she’s even alive and safe right now. And the scale of the social upheaval of the civil war only becomes apparent when you realise that all this stuff he does seems comparatively reasonable set against what is happening to Russia and Ukraine.

And I can’t look away from any of it. Byzantium Endures is a flaming car crash of a novel spilling severed body parts across the landscape. It’s ugly as hell and the consequences of what happens are appalling, but you can’t look away for a second.

Multiverse bollocks: Naturally there’s a smattering of references to the Jerry Cornelius series, since this is where Pyat originates, but few of them are especially overt – beyond, of course, the appearances by Jerry’s mum and Frank’s bid to get the story suppressed and Lobkowitz encouraging Moorcock not to give up on Pyat as a hateful and embittered old fascist. There’s a few bits where people comment on their watch stopping, which is a recurring motif of the Cornelius series, there’s a lot of Harlequin symbolism connected to the St. Petersburg crowd, and when Pyat is giving his megalomaniac account of his final exam he thinks of himself as, if not the Messiah of the Age of Science, at the very least a sort of John the Baptist figure to him.

In fact, during his cocaine-fuelled speech to his professors Pyat outlines not only a needle gun working along similar principles to that used by Jerry (also found on Michael Kane’s Mars), but also the Land Leviathan from the Oswald Bastable stories. Indeed, if even a fraction of Pyat’s inventions ever actually worked and became a commercial success, it would usher in an alternate history similar to those Bastable wanders through.

As previously mentioned, Pyat’s rape of Marya and Lena finds him babbling on in terms not dissimilar to those used by the Fireclown in The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming. Oh, and Pyat refers to the Bolsheviks as agents of Chaos, though there’s no indication of Lenin making sacrifices to Arioch.

Nestor Makhno, leader of the Anarchist forces in the civil war, makes a brief appearance but actually isn’t as prominent as you’d think he’d be, given his appearances in both the Cornelius series and Breakfast In the Ruins.

Towards the end, where his narration is getting more incoherent, Pyat confides that sometimes he thinks that a Third World War has happened and he’s living in the wreckage of it – which puts me in mind of Karl Glogauer in Breakfast In the Ruins, who lives in London but seems to have a bunch of alternate lives in other times and places, including one in a post-apocalyptic era.

The Laughter of Carthage

Sailing out of Odessa in the company of Mrs Cornelius, Pyat spares only a token thought for the plight of his mother, vaguely planning to check up on her once the situation in Russia becomes a bit more rational. As for Esmé, his childhood sweetheart, he’s disavowed her entirely because (in his eyes) she’s been ruined forever by being raped. Instead, Pyat turns his thoughts to more pressing matters – like his affair with the Baroness von Ruckstühl, which he strikes up after befriending her 11-year-old daughter Kitty. (Not that Pyat was planning to molest Kitty – he assures the reader that he’s not a pedo, no, definitely not, not even slightly, no matter what ugly accusations people bother the Metropolitan Police with. Plus he’d have got in too much trouble so it wasn’t worth the risk…) Regardless of whether he chooses to pursue his unreciprocated adoration of Mrs Cornelius or continue enjoying his decidedly reciprocated lust for the Baroness, Pyat’s got work to do in Constantinople – there is, after all, a civil war raging in the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and some dude called Kemal seems intent on frustrating the Allied plans to carve up much of the region for the European powers. Despite the rumours amongst the refugees that Constantinople will be given over to the White Russians to be their New Byzantium, it’s a dangerous place and Pyat, Mrs Cornelius and the Baroness want out – but that would mean getting an exit visa, or at the very least, a plausible forgery.

Still, Constantinople is not without its charms for Pyat – chief among them being a charming 13 year old Romanian girl, Elizaveta, who’s working as a prostitute to support her parents and who looks for all the world like a younger version of Esmé. So, Pyat – who, we will recall, is Not A Pedo, we know this because he tells us – buys her from her parents, renames her Esmé, and sets her up in a secret apartment. After an unfortunate entanglement with the civil war prompts Pyat to accelerate his plans to leave Constantinople, he brings Esmé with him and, after an interlude in Rome where Pyat makes a big impression on a clique of proto-Fascists, the duo arrive in Paris, where Pyat is able (after some searching) to track down his old flame Kolya and go into business with him to create luxury trans-Atlantic airships. Alas, the perfidious forces ruling the business world bring the plans low, and to avoid legal complications Pyat heads to America, promising to send for Esmé as soon as he had the money to send her a ticket and she and Kolya could arrange fake papers for her. Further airship schemes, a stint as a motivational speaker for the KKK, and the trials and tribulations of an itinerant actor await Pyat – but through it all, he dreams of the future, both his personal future with Esmé and the glorious future society of racially pure aerial cities drifting away into space he envisions. But can Pyat realise these dreams in the face of the terrifying force arrayed against him?

That force is, needless to be said, the international Jewish conspiracy.

Though Pyat seems to have calmed down somewhat at this stage in writing his autobiography – at least, he’s calmer than he was at the end of Byzantium Endures – he’s just a notch flakier as he writes his reminiscences this time; his long, ranty tangents and bursts of other languages are a bit more frequent this time. As such The Laughter of Carthage gives us a little more insight into the elder Pyat, offering us a few glimpses of his life after World War II and a lot more context on his beliefs about Carthage. “Carthage” is Pyat’s term for the forces arrayed against Western civilisation – chief among them being the Jews, of course, but the Tartars, Muslims, black people, Papacy, and everything Pyat considers “Oriental” is part of the deal. In his less coherent moments Pyat raves about how they tried to make him a Musselman, how they put a piece of iron in his stomach (or his womb, which they tried to use to make him bear a hideous child), and how they occupy the Secret Dimension of Power and use electrical forces to control people.

It’s clear, then, that the elder Pyat is speaking from a decidedly illucid worldview, but then we already knew that. What we have a better idea of is how his ideas have developed over time. Whilst the younger Pyat whose story is being told here is clearly virulently antisemitic and racist and cleaves to a conspiratorial view of the world – as witnessed by how well he gets on with the KKK – and whilst he does seem to have fantastical plans for the future, he doesn’t seem to be acquainted yet with some of the more peculiar ideas of the elder Pyat; in other words, the younger Pyat is a broadly functional paranoid, whereas the elder Pyat comes across as though he is suffering from severe dementia and/or paranoid schizophrenia. Deadly traumas are alluded to, as is an extended stay in a mental hospital under heavy medication. Whilst the younger Pyat shows a knack for inveigling his way into people’s confidences, he seems to have lost that gift in the general vicinity of World War II and is now regarded by most of those he encounters as an irrelevant crank.

Or maybe it was just easier to get away with it back then. Pyat would certainly have had a much harder time getting away with his scams if he had been born a few decades earlier or later. Despite his supposed distaste for Chaos, the effects World War I on the international stage and of the civil war back in Russia create a situation in which Pyat is able to thrive in the first place. The fact that Russia is in complete turmoil means that Pyat can claim anything he likes about his early life – if he can’t prove it, it’s only to be expected, and it will be incredibly hard for anyone to disprove it. Moreover, the different nations Pyat visits have all got their own different reactions to the trauma of the Great War – for instance, the rise of isolationism in America means that there’s an audience more than willing to hear Pyat rant about how terrible the rest of the world is and how white America needs to watch its back.

Of course, Pyat is not the only con artist out there – he isn’t even the best one. It is strongly implied that it was his Parisian business partners, not the unions (or the Jews) who engineered the failure of his transcontinental airship business and set him up to be the scapegoat, making it look as though he’d gotten away with all the money; this sets up a later irony in which a clique of American con artists end up ruining themselves when they try to dupe cash out of Pyat which he was only pretending to possess in the first place. Pyat, bless him, seems to have never realised what quite happened there; although he does occasionally cotton to the fact that some people really are plotting against him, it’s usually only after they’ve made it transparently obvious, and most of the time he shows an unerring ability to protest the innocence of the very people who’ve done him the most harm. It’s even possible that he’s being honest with the reader, and his incredible naivety and inability to interpret people’s motivations have made him the innocent victim of other’s manipulations for his entire life, to an extent where he can’t even see how much he’s been played.

But then again, Pyat is too busy trying to dodge his imaginary enemies to think too much about his real ones. As well as his general conviction that the dark forces of Carthage are constantly plotting against civilisation itself, Pyat believes that he personally is being tailed by Brodmann, a Bolshevik he betrayed to the White Russians towards the end of Byzantium Endures. Whether this is really the case or not is an exercise for the reader to work out, though there are some fairly major clues to suggest it isn’t true. Firstly, Pyat notes encountering Brodmann in 1948 and being told by him that he wasn’t allowed out of the Soviet Union until 1946 in order to do some work in Czechkoslovakia. Secondly, the first time Pyat thinks he recognises Brodmann in his general vicinity he eventually turns out to be wrong, and admits as much, so Pyat is established early on as being worried about Brodmann following him and inclined to mistake people as being Brodmann.

It is, however, a little too early to see just how this particular thread is going to develop, and the same is true for a lot of plot strands in the novel, being as it is the second of a four-part series. That said, there’s some self-contained aspects of the novel which are pretty interesting; the Klan stuff, in particular, is an interesting evocation of a time when the Klan was riding high and gathering real political power, showing the potential to bring in a fascistic government in the US if it weren’t riven by infighting and an inability to maintain internal discipline.

One of the more interesting ideas developed in this book is of Pyat as a city creature. This is in part a continuation of a theme from the Jerry Cornelius series, since Jerry is also a creature optimised for city environments, and Pyat shares a little of Jerry’s chameleon-like nature in his regular adoption of new identities. The big difference is that where Jerry sees himself as being at war with History, Pyat is out to fulfil it: he has a very idealised conception of each city he comes to and sees the presence of those aspects not to his taste as being a problem to be dealt with. His fantasy of culturally pure aerial cities flying above the surface of the world whilst the hordes of Carthage are gently exterminated as a prelude to humanity taking to the stars, as well as having a sort of Iron Dream vibe to it, seems to stem from a desire to protect the way he wants the world to be from the way it actually is.

An interesting exception arises in Pyat’s attitude to Hollywood, when he arrives there. I’d been steeling myself for a particularly violent bout of anti-semitism from Pyat there since “the Jews run Hollywood” is a myth about as old as Hollywood itself. In fact, Pyat surprisingly gives Hollywood a pass on this front, claiming that the Jews he encountered there were, by and large, a different and far more acceptable variety of Jew than those encountered more or less anywhere else, with the only exception being someone who personally offends Pyat by saying something tactless about the Tsar. This might be down to Pyat’s newfound love of the cinema – over the course of the book he becomes an unabashed D.W. Griffith fanboy, his favourite movie being, naturally, Birth of a Nation; the point seems to be that Pyat’s bigotry seems to be a self-serving thing, which he applies to things he dislikes and switches off when it would require him to condemn something he actually likes. Maybe a lot of trouble would have been avoided if some enterprising time traveller had given him a printout of How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things or something.

Multiverse bollocks: In his narration of the sea voyage to Constantinople, Pyat talks about how on especially dark nights it felt as though the boat were sailing through a great underground cave, which is a little reminiscent of Elric’s journey underground in While the Gods Laugh. In Constantinople itself Pyat meets Major Nye, who appears in the Cornelius stories as an allegorical representative of decaying British imperialism and militarism. When procuring fake ID to smuggle himself and “Esmé” into Italy, Pyat uses the name “Cornelius” – which of course is no doubt related to the pretense that he and Mrs Cornelius are married, but also might be a nod to Pyat’s status as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion and his role in setting the stage for Jerry Cornelius – especially since the pair claim to be brother and sister, which of course recalls Jerry and Catherine’s own incestuous relationship. (Jerry, along with Frank, is only occasionally directly alluded to in the text; Pyat complains of the Cornelius brothers dissing him as a “sleazy old fascist”, whilst one of them apparently was very interested in Pyat’s recollections of X Hearst’s old folly San Simeon – this was probably Jerry since he uses a version of the castle rebuilt in Notting Hill as a base in the Cornelius novels – or fantasises about doing so if you’re willing to run with the “realistic” version of Jerry offered in The Condition of Muzak.) Pyat expresses an appreciation for Derry and Tom’s Roof Garden, a Kensington landmark which is the scene for important incidents in The Chinese Agent, A Cure for Cancer and Breakfast In the Ruins.

Jerusalem Commands

Jerusalem Commands opens with complications arising in Pyat’s trip to New York to collect Esmé. The discovery of bootleg alcohol aboard his aircraft – entirely the fault of the pilot, he insists – leads to tangles with the law, which coincide with the sudden evaporation of support from his backer in Hollywood. Falling in with Jacob Mix, an itinerant worker who latches onto Pyat because he considers him to be lucky and who, because he happens to be black, is regarded by Pyat as his Man Friday, Pyat eventually reaches the Big Apple through the time-honoured method of sneaking a lift on freight trains. Alas, Esmé has already moved on to Hollywood in the company of millionaire Meulemkaumpf, and after a difficult journey back to California (involving a stopover with the Hearsts which Pyat glosses over but might have involved Pyat acting as a hit man) Pyat discovers that his business interests and sources of income in Hollywood have collapsed. However, with a bit of effort he soon gets himself a place in the film industry, first as a set designer and technician but eventually as the star of the Masked Buckaroo series of low-budget Westerns.

Between filming episodes of his Westerns, Pyat continues to do various tasks for more prominent studios and eventually befriends Sam Goldwyn of MGM fame. After a film version of a story Pyat composed about the Russian Revolution proves successful, Goldwyn and Pyat become quite taken with the idea of producing an Egyptian-themed epic filmed in real-life locations in Egypt itself. Thus, Pyat, Esmé, Mrs Cornelius and Jacob Mix find themselves sailing to Egypt on the Hope Dempsey. However, when the project goes off the rails a little Pyat ends up in more trouble than he can deal with, leading to a perilous journey across North Africa.

There was an 8 year gap in between Moorcock putting out The Laughter of Carthage and this one, partly because of the extensive research each volume required and partly (according to Moorcock) because he found the process of adopting this horrifying fascist blowhard’s voice difficult and nauseating. I can’t for a second blame Moorcock for wanting to take a break, but I’m not entirely convinced that he successfully recaptured Pyat’s voice after the hiatus. It’s not that the general tenor of the text has changed, it’s just that either Pyat or Moorcock seem to be going through the motions here. Pyat’s less lucid tangents feel less like giddy tumbles off the tightrope of coherence and more like ritualistic repetition of stock phrases from the previous book, like the stuff about the Jews putting metal in his stomach/womb or how he wouldn’t become a Musselman. It’s as though Moorcock is trying to return to the mental state he adopted for the previous books by mimicing the outward symptoms thereof; all the points on the checklist are ticked off but things don’t come alive to the extent they did in earlier volumes.

By this point, Pyat’s tangents and obsessions have become wearisomely familiar to the reader. On the one hand, this isn’t entirely unreasonable – constantly inventing newer and more outrageous delusions and conspiracy theories for the guy would ultimately turn him into a big cartoon. On the other hand, whilst the repetitive ramblings of a character like Pyat might offer a lot of novelty the first time you hear them, sooner or later they just get tiresome and boring. The first time you read Gene Ray’s website or experience one of Francis E. Dec’s rants it all looks mindblowingly wacky, but read more of their material and soon it becomes all too predictable, their theories marching up and down in the same old ruts ad nauseum. It’s to Moorcock’s credit that he was able to hold the reader’s attention for over 1000 pages so far, despite Pyat’s frequent lapses into utter incoherence, but even then there are limits.

Of course, the secret of the previous two books was that the events being narrated by Pyat engaged my interest and made me want to keep going. Even though Pyat was a ragingly unreliable narrator, the fact that he’s often very, very bad at lying meant that a sort of narrative could be pieced together which told a very different story from the one he offers when he does choose to misrepresent events from the past (or is actually properly deluded about what happened). Indeed, often it will appear in the first two books that Pyat doesn’t misrepresent any of the actual facts, but would take absolutely the wrong conclusion from them, with the end result being he’s actually less unreliable of a narrator than he might be because he accidentally lets slip enough to piece together what is going on.

Here, however, I couldn’t get any sense of where Pyat’s bigotry ended and reality began. This might, of course, be entirely down to my own bone-headed ignorance of North African history and culture of the late 1920s. On the other hand, I didn’t have this problem with the first part of The Laughter of Carthage, despite knowing more or less nothing about post-WWI Constantinople (to the point where I didn’t even realise the Allies were occupying it). In that case, Moorcock did a good job of conveying Pyat’s personal impressions and prejudices about a place whilst slipping in ample suggestions that things aren’t quite as simplistic as Pyat’s ideology requires him to be.

The problem I’m having here is that the people surrounding Pyat either respond to these places in more or less the same way he does (with fat doses of cloying Orientalism coupled with a disparaging contempt for Islam), or are even more bigoted than he is. On top of that, the only locals Pyat really gets to know here are enigmatic ciphers (particularly in Egypt, where Moorcock seems on the verge of bringing some local political figures onto the scene and then thinks better off it) or utter cartoons. El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech who historically speaking cultivated an alliance with the French in order to oust the Sultan, is depicted as a tyrant straight out of the Arabian Nights, beheading people with scimitars and advised by Hadj Idder, who doesn’t have the title of Grand Vizier but is certainly behaving according to the stereotype. And then, of course, there’s the subject of El Glaoui’s harem, which Pyat learns is somewhere halfway between the sexy paradise of Westerners’ boner-addled fantasies and a depressing rape dungeon, as opposed to “that place in the house where the women live” (which I understand to be the more accurate definition of the term).

Now, it is true that you can’t take Pyat’s word at face value about this, or indeed more or less anything he says about other races and cultures and religions. In particular, the point about the harem is really doubtful because Pyat never actually sees the place – he only learns about it second hand from Rose von Bek, who may well be inventing these stories entirely to ensure she gets Pyat’s aid in escaping once she’s accomplished whatever mission it is she’s been sent on. (It’s heavily implied that she’s spying for Mussolini.) Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t really give us enough meat to piece together what’s really going on; the lens of Pyat’s prejudices has become so thick you can’t peer through it in the same way you can with incidents like the oral exam in Byzantium Endures.

One particularly bizarre incident involves the collapse of the film project. With Goldwyn pulling out his funding, Pyat and company end up resorting to more local sources of finance, and despite going through the apparently respectable intermediary of Sir Ranalf end up in hock to al-Habashiya, a transvestite slaver, organised crime ringleader, and sex maniac, who turns the production into a violent porn shoot.

Digging around, I believe that this is meant to be Ibrahim al-Gharbi – a Nubian transvestite who really was a major figure in the sex trade in colonial-era Cairo. However, there’s mild problems with the account here – not least that the only sources I can find on al-Gharbi suggest that he was interned by the British in 1923 and doesn’t appear to have made waves since. Oh, Pyat tells us that al-Gharbi had gotten out of British custody somehow, but even so, taking Pyat on trust at this point is decidedly difficult – not least because the story takes a right turn into the fantastic at this point. Once he is enslaved by al-Habashiya, Pyat ends up consigned to the crime lord’s bisexual harem, which operates in a manner not too distant from the more extreme incidents in de Sade; new inductees are raped repeatedly until they are completely broken down, branded to indicate ownership, and eventually have their eyes gouged out to render them entirely dependent on al-Habashiya.

Given that this is, again, a mashup of Western fears and fantasies about what goes down in harems on the one hand and a Sadean cautionary tale about the dangers of porn on the other, with the central character being an infamous figure who was held up as a particularly detestable master of the “white slave trade” (and whose depiction seems to be inspired entirely by a mashup of scare stories and de Sade), on the whole I am inclined to believe that this is all Pyat’s invention, a demented fantasy cooked up to conceal the real reasons why he parted ways with the old production team, why it is that there are pornographic movies from the era floating around with him as one of the participants, and what exactly happened to Esmé, who Pyat claims to have sold to al-Habashiya under duress. This impression is only emphasised by the fact that al-Habashiya shows up literally immediately after Pyat discovers Esmé has been sleeping with Sir Ranalf on the side – whilst Esmé is chained to an altar and Pyat is clutching a dagger as part of a human sacrifice scene. Such circumstances, combined with Pyat’s inability to countenance either incarnation of Esmé being with another man and the epic amounts of cocaine fuelling his performance, lead me to think that if anything Esmé is buried somewhere outside Luxor and Pyat’s responsible for her being there.

That doesn’t change the fact that of the two harems which play a significant role in the plot here, both are presented as horrifying rape dungeons. Nor does it change the fact that the North Africans that Pyat interacts with for more than a brief exchange consist of brutal tyrants, corrupt officials, sex slavers, and violent nomads – in other words, a grab-bag of Western stereotypes about the Arab world. This is, of course, arguably a result of Pyat’s extremely blinkered worldview giving us a massively distorted version of reality. The difficulty I have is that in the previous books we can tell that Pyat is selling us a load of crap but at the same time reality does regularly seem to bleed through – usually by mistake on Pyat’s part, when he lets slip something he doesn’t want us to hear or spends excessive energy excusing or justifying or rationalising away something. Here, Pyat’s delusions are somewhat more all-pervading; whereas the previous books offered a travelogue narrated by a fantasist with a second story more or less visible through the cracks, for large expanses of Jerusalem Commands the real story becomes tremendously difficult to perceive. Admittedly, this is partially because I’m tremendously ignorant about British Mandate-era Egypt – it’s almost as though it were something we weren’t proud about, eh? – but even so I think Moorcock should have understood that, given that his readership is likely to be substantially less knowledgeable about Egypt than the US, he should have treaded correspondingly more carefully. The only difference between reading Pyat and reading any other horrible racist rant is that with Pyat there’s usually something interesting bubbling under the surface that you can get at if you press through his defences, but there’s points here where I become sceptical as to whether there is any substance to the present volume beyond Pyat’s Orientalism.

Another issue I have with the book is Moorcock’s sudden lack of subtlety when it comes to the multiverse references in it, which Moorcock shoehorns in more regularly and frequently more blatantly this time around. For instance, Pyat’s consideration of the problems of transport in the desert lead him to propose a gargantuan vehicle he refers to as a “land leviathan”, not unlike the Land Leviathan of the selfsame Bastable novel; later, he refers to Muslim immigrants to the UK as “nomads of the time-streams”, which is of course a tip of a hat to the Bastable omnibus which came out in the very same year as The Laughter of Carthage. The ship Pyat and company take from Hollywood to Alexandria is the Hope Dempsey, which is of course the name of the starship in The Black Corridor. She is skippered by Captain Quelch, who feels a profound connection to Pyat, which Pyat reciprocates, and they consider each other “soulmates”, which suggests that this adventurous Quelch is an incarnation of the Eternal Champion. His brother Professor Quelch, who becomes significant during Pyat’s jaunt in Egypt, regularly name-drops Wheldrake (a Victorian poet significant in both Gloriana and The Revenge of the Rose), and the third Quelch brother – mentioned in this book but never appearing onstage – is Horace Quelch, who would go on to play a major role in the Second Ether trilogy.

Roses, a motif which had become very prominent in Moorcock’s work in the early 1990s, regularly make an appearance in Pyat’s musings, which might be another nod to both The Revenge of the Rose and a prelude to the central role of the Rose in the Second Ether trilogy. Moreover, an incarnation of the Rose shows up in the book in the form of one Lilla von Bek (who occasionally goes by Rose von Bek or Rosie), a tie-in to the expansive von Bek family whose hot air balloon happens to carry a stash of Sexton Blake stories. (At around this time Moorcock would start running a series of Sexton Blake pastiches which would be worked into the Second Ether series and would tie in Blake with the von Bek family; this is also a nod to Moorcock’s early career, since his first published book was an entry in the Sexton Blake Library cowritten by himself and James Cawthorn.) Another von Bek reference is to the Begg branch of the family, one of Pyat’s aging fascist friends in 1950s London happening to live in a place designed by a Begg.

Stuff like this works its way into the narrative frequently, and often with more obviousness than the mildly more subtle references in the earlier book. It doesn’t quite hit the point where you need to have read all of Moorcock’s other material to follow this one (in the same way that The Quest for Tanelorn flounders) but I did genuinely worry that the book might start drifting in that direction and in general the references add nothing to the book beyond Easter eggs for Moorcock’s regular readers – it’s just tedious when the eggs are so brightly coloured and placed in the foreground.

On the other hand, there’s an actual honest-to-God authorial self-insertion at one point which I actually think works quite well. On one of his tangents about his post-1940s life, Pyat mentions the demolition of the Convent of the Poor Clares in Ladbroke Grove, and recounts seeing “Moorcock, the one they all despise and pretend to be friendly with” picking through the ruins looking for mementos and playing a little trick on Moorcock. (The Convent would be preserved as one of Jerry’s hideouts in the Cornelius stories.) The narrative doesn’t clearly delineate where the story is based on Pyat’s papers and where it’s based on the tapes of Moorcock’s conversations with Pyat, giving rise to two interesting possibilities: if this incident was recorded in the papers, then it’s evident that Pyat didn’t care for Moorcock at all and was feigning friendship with him as part of an effort to get his story out under the guise of providing his recollections of Mrs Cornelius. On the other hand, if it showed up in the tapes, it implies all that and additionally takes the unreliability of the present-day Pyat to a whole new level, since he’d only mention such a thing on the tapes if he’d entirely forgotten who it was he was talking to.

Another difficulty I had getting through Jerusalem Commands is that there just isn’t much that actually happens in the book. The film project and Pyat’s desperate escape from the consequences of it take up so much space that the midsection of the novel really drags. Things do kind of pick up in Marrakech, despite the whole Rose von Bek thing – it helps that Pyat finally gets himself entangled with a brand new engineering scheme, putting an end to this uncomfortably long tangent, and I like Mix’s spying antics here, just as I like Mix’s horror at Pyat’s glib willingness to sell people out to get out of trouble. You get the impression that Mix has, throughout the novel, been the hero of his own parallel story which operates along more idealistic rules than Pyat’s. Pyat’s musings about his pathetic life in the UK after World War II are also interesting, not least because of the insights they offer into why Pyat is the way he is; having spent much of his early life in places in utter turmoil, Pyat clearly isn’t adjusting at all well to life in the UK. There may be something to his rants about how the stability the UK enjoys is a decadent illusion and once you step out into the wider world all is chaos and bloodshed (kind of like what happens when Hobbits leave the Shire, eh?), but the impression given is more that Pyat has never really adjusted to peace and considers war to be the natural state of the world – and if there isn’t a war actually happening on his doorstep, by golly he’ll invent one in his head.

Despite the occasional flashes of interest, overall Jerusalem Commands‘s flabby midsection expended a lot of the goodwill which the previous two books had built up, and on the whole made me profoundly worried about where The Vengeance of Rome is going to take us. That said, once I’d actually finished the book and started looking back and digesting it, I found my appreciation of it grew somewhat – in particular, the figure of al-Habashiya seemed profoundly less problematic once I both realised that the character was a take on a real historical figure, rather than being a total caricature invented by Moorcock, which in turn helped me rationalise the sequence in al-Habashiya’s harem as being a mixture of genuine peril Pyat was face with and odd fantasies of Pyat’s invented around that incident. Still, I can’t help but wish that Pyat had been confronted with a few really strong examples of North Africans who don’t fit Orientalist stereotypes, if only to counter the impression made at points that Moorcock had been mildly infected by some of his creation’s own distortions.

Multiverse bollocks: In addition to the stuff I’ve outlined above, Pyat’s accounts of his post-World War II life in the proximity of Mrs Cornelius make it clear that the whole series unfolds in the same universe as (or, at least, a universe in very close proximity to) the “realistic” Jerry Cornelius who is the focus of one of the narrative threads in The Condition of Muzak. There’s some reference to the death of Mrs Cornelius at the end of that novel, as well as a mention of Jerry having an acting career and Miss Brunner and Bishop Beesley existing in the roles they had in that particular universe.

The Vengeance of Rome

Pyat’s final bow took an impressively long time to arrive, only emerging in 2006. This is a delay of George R.R. Martin proportions, though in this case I don’t think many would hold it against Moorcock. As the punchline to a joke which has taken thousands of pages to set up, Moorcock really couldn’t afford to botch this; this is doubly true when the book concerns Pyat’s descent into the heart of totalitarian Europe.

We find Pyat where we left him: sharing a railway car with Mix as the pair try to get out of North Africa. Ditching his pal at the first sign of trouble, Pyat knocks about the Mediterranean a bit before encountering Fiorello, a Futurist acquaintance of his from his first visit to Rome, who offers to take Pyat back to Italy. Pyat, having been convinced by Rose that Fascism is wicked cool, is more than happy to accept, and before long our favourite Jewish pure-blooded Cossack con-man inventor has finagled his way into Mussolini’s inner circle, offering to build Land Leviathans to advance il Duce’s territorial ambitions in North Africa. For a variety of reasons – inadvisable sexual adventures, some complicated scheme of Mussolini’s which involves getting funding from Spain to build prototype Land Leviathans, Fiorello’s disgrace due to his former Communist connections, Pyat’s friendliness with Mussolini’s wife, that sort of thing – Fascist Italy becomes mildly uncomfortable for Pyat, so when Mussolini proposes to send our man to Munich on a secret mission (which somehow rather falls by the wayside) Pyat jumps at the chance.

Munich in 1932 is, of course, an exciting place to be – not least because Bavaria’s favourite band of brothers, the NSDAP, seem to be on the verge of power. Pyat, still passionately loyal to Fascist ideals, finds the atmosphere intoxicating – not least because he has found himself caught up in a passionate affair with SA leader Ernst Röhm. Through his connection with Röhm, though, Pyat finds that the internal politics of the Nazis are far from cordial, and soon Pyat finds himself stuck in Dachau cursing the treachery of Hitler and mourning “the death of Nazi chivalry” in the Night of the Long Knives. Escape, reunion with Mrs Cornelius, and at long last Pyat’s arrival in England eventually come Pyat’s way through a series of accidents – accidents stemming from one last attempt to perfect the flying machines of his youth – and Pyat is left whiling away the years with Mrs Cornelius in London, until an encounter with Esmé (the real one, not the child prostitute Pyat tried to turn into a copy of her) and his poor old mother gives Pyat a chance for one last betrayal.

The overall course of The Vengeance of Rome offers few surprises in terms of the basic structure of the plot – thanks to Pyat’s unfocused rambling in the other volumes of the series we already know he was fond of Mussolini, thought Hitler totally sold out the National Socialist cause, spent some time in a concentration camp and was interned on the Isle of Man with Oswald Mosley and other political liabilities during World War II before spending the post-War years in utter obscurity. What did take me off-guard about this volume of the series is how coherent it is. Don’t get me wrong, Pyat’s dementia, bigotry, conspiracy theories and other issues still conspire to make the book the sort of bumpy roller-coaster ride the Pyat series has always been, but his spells of lucidity here are more prolonged than they have been at any point since the early parts of Byzantium Endures. This is a fairly subtle payoff, but a very effective one: I thought after all the bizarre sexual fantasies and the violent rape and the pedophilia and the racism and so on and so forth Pyat would be unable to shock me this late in the series, but the fact that for him Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (pre-Night of the Long Knives) represent islands of sanity is the ultimate illustration of what a profoundly malfunctional human being he is.

Of course, whilst Pyat’s story is more coherent for much of this volume, it isn’t necessarily more truthful or accurate. For instance, Pyat claims to have worn a violet armband in Dachau which gave him a special status, but the Nazi armband code didn’t give out violet triangles – the closest you had were the purple triangles given to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It seems more likely that Pyat was given a blue triangle to denote his status as a dodgy foreigner, and indeed apparently he was at first assigned a blue and yellow one because for some reason the Nazis thought he was Jewish. Not only is Pyat as anxious as always to remind the reader that he isn’t Jewish, he also seems to want to claim some sort of special status in the camp aristocracy – though apparently he was never a capo, Pyat goes out of his way to reiterate that he was one of the better class of prisoners, not like the dirty Jews or homosexuals who were the subject of contempt even from their fellow inmates – and on top of that, he is so reluctant to level with us that he invents an entire category of prisoner specifically so that he doesn’t have to tell us the raw facts about his internment.

That said, it’s not clear Pyat even recalls why he was persecuted in the first place. A major plot point in his narrative revolves around the death of Geli Raubal, Hitler’s niece whose suicide by gunshot to the chest has prompted heaps of conspiracy theories, not least because of persistent rumours that they had an incestuous relationship. According to Pyat, these rumours were true, as was the theory that Geli was murdered in order to stop her telling the world about Hitler’s eccentric tastes – and to help Hitler get functional again after Geli’s death leaves him a nervous wreck, Röhm cajoles Pyat into masquerading as a prostitute and utterly sexually humiliating the Führer.

Given a narrator other than Pyat, I’d tut and write the book off as Moorcock succumbing to the weirdly common tendency to try and suggest that Hitler had some sort of dark sexual secret which somehow explains or is reflected in his political and military agenda. (Folks: Hitler murdered millions of people and ignited the bloodiest war the world has ever seen, you don’t need to resort to snide War-era propaganda and muckraking to demonise him because his on-the-record actions do that all by themselves.) It would not, after all, be the first time Moorcock resorted to cheap sensationalism surrounding the Nazis – I’m thinking particularly of The Dragon In the Sword which relied on conspiracy theories about Nazi occultism here. However, by this point Moorcock has trained the reader to take what Pyat says with a fist-sized nugget of salt, and he lampshades this further when a while before the Hitlerfuck scene Ernst Hanfstaengl mentions to Pyat that there are folk throughout the Reich who convince themselves they’ve had sexual liaisons with Hitler that never happened, citing this as an example of the adoration Hitler inspires. The natural response is to wonder whether the scene in question and the Geli theory are inventions of Pyat’s to rationalise why the Nazi apparatus might have turned against him so comprehensively. After all, what other motives would they have for persecuting him? It’s not as though Pyat is Jewish.

It was at around this stage of the book that I finally grasped what is going on with the series as a whole. At the risk of sounding insanely pretentious Between the Wars is, despite the title, not really about the inter-war years – it’s about people’s recollections of the inter-war years. Although Moorcock’s research has been consistently impressive throughout the saga, Pyat is such a deeply untrustworthy narrator that you can’t really draw any conclusions about the era from what he says without thoroughly double-checking it from superior sources. Pyat’s presentation of the period is a myth constructed to point the blame for his misdeeds at anyone other than him, in much the same way as we like to forget about any of the less savoury international adventures the toxic, decaying British Empire was getting up to at around the same time. We remember the Nazis as a monolithic evil empire with Hitler as the arch-eneny of everything good and decent in the world because that makes us seem more heroic for having defeated them; Pyat remembers them as deeply factionalised and prone to in-fighting because he sees himself as a victim of the SA purge, and accuses Hitler of being a sell-out who betrayed the principles of fascism because he doesn’t see the disaster of the Third Reich as symptomatic of any particular problems with fascism.

This plays into the particular tragedy of Pyat’s Holocaust experience: he never sees it coming because he never really expects it to happen to him, so when it happens his reaction is divided 50/50 between stunned incomprehension and busily denigrating other internees he considers to be lower on the pecking order than him (including, of course, the Jews, because of course he’s not Jewish). Holocaust narratives have, of course, become kind of a big thing, and justifiably so, but I think Pyat’s Dachau experience manages to be interesting precisely because of how much of a shit Pyat reveals himself to be in describing it. You spend about half the time feeling sorry for the guy and half the time infuriated by him and in that see-sawing you end up in this interesting ethical place where clearly Pyat is a terrible human being – as Moorcock has exhaustively established over the past 2000 pages – but you end up feeling bad for him anyway because there is literally nothing anyone can do which would make them deserving of what happened to people in the camps. I guess this is the point the book wants to make about the Holocaust: it was a bad thing not because it happened to innocents – Pyat clearly isn’t innocent and as he points out some of the political prisoners in there were ex-Nazis on the wrong side of the purge – but because it shouldn’t have happened to anyone, and consequently we can’t say we as a species have learned anything from it until we learn not to turn a blind eye to cruelty just because it’s happening to someone we don’t like.

Whilst we can say that Pyat in no way deserves what he goes through once the Nazis lose their patience with him, at the same time he’s still a unique literary monster. His final encounter with his mother highlights this; it’s clear that she and Esmé have each had their own series of adventures and tribulations in the chaos of the revolution and the subsequent years, and them meeting up once again in Israel after the dust has settled represents one of the few happy endings the book offers. Pyat even seems to be on the verge of actually forgiving Esmé for being raped by partisans (yes, this is why he washes his hands of her in Byzantium Endures), but of course when his mother starts discussing family history Pyat starts hearing things he doesn’t want to hear and decides that she’s an impostor. It’s this that finally inspires Esmé to wash her hands of him, and it’s this which Moorcock leaves us with: a man so passionately dedicated to denial that he pisses away his best shot at rebuilding the life he fondly remembers from before the revolution in a fit of anti-semitism.

Multiverse bollocks: The Cornelius references are back in force, not least in the form of recurring harlequin motifs. As part of the increased emphasis on Pyat’s life in London in the 1970s, we are treated to a trip to the pub where we meet the extended cast of the Jerry Cornelius stories – again making it clear that we’re dealing with the “real” versions who appeared in The Condition of Muzak. Moreover, we finally get a cameo from Jerry himself, who by this point has begun his acting career and is doing well for himself. It is heavily implied that Jerry’s landed a role as an extra on the set of Star Wars – specifically, the bits of the film recorded at Elstree, which would include the scenes set on the Death Star. (This, in turn, may be a very subtle nod to Firing the Cathedral, a Cornelius story in which Jerry and his cronies manipulate America into destroying itself out of fear of the sinister Death Star Terrorists.) Moorcock himself also turns up in the pub at around this point but is again treated dismissively by Pyat, who thinks Mike is entirely too fond of Jerry for his own good.

There’s also a structural parallel here in that The Condition of Muzak, the conclusion of the core Jerry Cornelius novels, ends with Jerry having a chat with his mother about family history just as this novel ends with Pyat discussing family history with his mother, the obvious difference being that Jerry takes his mother’s revelations to heart (not least because they suggest a strange, fantastical dimension even to the “real” Jerry Cornelius’ life) whereas Pyat rejects his own mother to her face.

Desmond Reid, who directs Pyat in a series of adaptations of Karl May stories about Native Americans and frontiersmen banding together to face down the Man off in the USA (which turns into a series of ethnoseparatist propaganda films pushing the idea that just as Native Americans need to defend their lebensraum against filthy Jewish big business interests, so too do the Germans need to carve out and defend some lebensraum of their own) is a pseudonym used by Moorcock and James Cawthorn when they collaborated on Caribbean Crisis, a novel written for the Sexton Blake library which in principle is Moorcock’s first published novel but in practice he’s washed his hands of.

At one point Pyat scoffs at someone’s depiction of an ice schooner a lot like the titular ship in The Ice Schooner.

The Picky Buyer’s Guide

This is really an all-or-nothing proposition: unlike, say, the Cornelius series or the Elric saga where I feel you can cut away the chaff fairly easily by ditching whole volumes and sticking to the core, you can’t cherry-pick out specific volumes of the Pyat saga because in doing so you ruin it. Skip early books in the series and you lose valuable context from when characters show up later on in the series; forego later books and you miss the punchline.

In this case, I’m willing to give it a qualified thumbs up. I had my doubts about Jerusalem Commands, but after taking some time to digest it and getting the additional context The Vengeance of Rome offers I am more well-disposed to it. It would be an interesting experiment to reread the series with full foreknowledge of what happens, since I suspect many of the descriptions of early events in the chronology end up being flavoured in Pyat’s mind by subsequent events (so, for instance, his ordeals in Egypt may be distorted not only by his own odd fantasies and deliberate misrepresentations of what happened but also his subsequent experiences in the Holocaust). The overall four-book series is a 2201 page monolith told in a narrative voice which is, to say the least, difficult to follow and impossible to like, but the combination of research, wit and pathos on display ended up winning me over.

At the same time, of course, if you find you’re not able to sit through Pyat’s bigoted rants I can’t exactly blame you. I’m able to swallow it because it’s clearly a literary device Moorcock is using for a specific effect he’s deliberately thought through, and carefully pitches to make it clear that he doesn’t support what Pyat is saying and any sensible person paying attention to Pyat is saying would realise the old rogue’s in the wrong. (Moorcock was so dedicated to this point, in fact, that when promoting Byzantium Endures he got his actor friend Freddie Earlle, to tour with him in the role of Pyat, so you’d have Pyat going around saying these terrible things with Moorcock in the role of editor/ghostwriter getting into stand-up arguments with him over the stuff he says.) Moreover, the books themselves clearly have some substance to them beneath the bigotry which makes me willing to work through it. (By contrast, I can’t stomach Howard any more because the bigotry is sincerely meant and, even if you set it aside, his material has no substance to it – it’s all disposable adventure fiction which isn’t even especially original.) Other people might not be willing to extend that much patience to Pyat, having heard the same old crap from people in real life once too often or simply because they don’t have the time or inclination to deal with such a shitbag of a narrator for thousands of pages, and I honestly couldn’t blame them. So, Between the Wars gets into the Buyer’s Guide, but perhaps you’d be best off trying the first book before acquiring the rest of the set. It’s shorter than the others by about 200 pages, and by the end of it you’ll know whether you want to follow Pyat to the end of his journey or never read a word of his again.

(Buyer beware: pre-2012 American editions of Byzantium Endures were butchered by Random House, who decided to edit out all of the anti-semitism. This, of course, makes a complete nonsense of the book – it’s like editing all the pedophilia out of Lolita – so steer clear. Of course, if you’re in the US it’s probably easier to track down the PM Press editions, which feature Moorcock’s charming features in the role of Pyat on the front cover.)

The Stealer of Souls [1]
Stormbringer (post-1977 edition) [1]
The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
Clovis Marca:
The Shores of Death (AKA The Twilight Man) [2]
Michael Kane:
City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars) [3]
Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars) [3]
Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars) [3]
Alan Powys:
The Winds of Limbo (AKA The Fireclown) [2]
Jerry Cornelius:
The Final Programme [4]
A Cure For Cancer [4]
The English Assassin [4]
The Condition of Muzak [4]
Gold Diggers of 1977 (AKA The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle)
Professor Faustaff:
The Rituals of Infinity (AKA The Wrecks of Time) [2]
Karl Glogauer:
Behold the Man
Breakfast In the Ruins
Konrad Arflane:
The Ice Schooner
The Black Corridor
Oswald Bastable:
The Warlord of the Air
Jherek Carnelian and Amelia Underwood:
An Alien Heat [5]
The Hollow Lands [5]
The End of All Songs [5]
Colonel Moishe Maxim Pyat:
Byzantium Endures
The Laughter of Carthage
Jerusalem Commands
The Vengeance of Rome

[1] Collected in Elric or the Del Rey edition of Elric: the Stealer of Souls.

[2] Collected in The Roads Between the Worlds.

[3] Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.

[4] Collected in The Cornelius Quartet or The Cornelius Chronicles (2-volume UK edition, or 1st volume of the US version).

[5] Collected in The Dancers at the End of Time.

3 thoughts on “The King of the Frauds

  1. Pingback: You, Blowhard – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: The History of the Von Beks – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  3. Pingback: Elric: A Von Bek Fantasy – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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