If you thought you had made a mistake that led to the greatest disasters of the twentieth century, how would you atone? This is the question that haunts Johan Thoms the rest of his life after he takes a wrong turn while driving Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, one day in late June of 1914 in Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms.
Prior to 1914, Johan Thoms has lived a charmed life. He wasn’t expected to live when he was born. He was gored by a deer when it was seven. His father’s decline into a benign insanity almost halted his career at the University of Sarajevo. But Johan has always had a knack for making devoted friends, even though he is an oddball. He even managed to find the love of his life at an embassy party while blitzed nearly out of his mind on absinthe.
That all changes when he replaces the intended chauffeurs and drives the Archduke and Archduchess in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Those who know their history already know what’s going to happen. Johan manages to drive his charges safely through a few botched assassination attempts. On their way to their designated rendezvous, however, Johan starts to daydream of his love Lorelei’s perfume and takes a wrong turn. The turn takes them right to Gavrilo Princip, who is eating a sandwich after having given up on his plans to kill the Archduke. History resumes. Johan flees Sarajevo, fearing that he will be blamed for his mistake. He spends the rest of his life on the run.
A very rich friend provides money and documents for Johan, but at first, Johan is in too much of a daze to do more than walk west. He ends up in a hospital in Mostar. He has blinding headaches and comatose episodes whenever he reads or hears the news. There he inadvertently rescues a dying boy. They flee to Italy and then Spain and Portugal. The boy, Cicero, recovers. The two care for each other as Europe erupts into war over and over again. Johan’s best friend is killed at the Somme in 1916. His lover returns, pregnant, to America. She searches for him for almost the rest of her life, to tell Johan about his son and grandson.
The years pass and Johan and Cicero have to flee the violence of the Spanish Civil War and then World War II. Only in 1946 does Johan return to his small village in Bosnia. He blames himself for every death that followed the Archduke’s. He experiences madness many times and becomes known for wandering around naked or naked with a cape. He wears an eyepatch, but changes which eye he covers. Strangely, he also experiences literary success as the author Blanche de la Peña, the author of pacifist adventures and subversive tales of Asian opium fiends. Still, he spends his last decades hiding from his mistake.
Johan’s story is related via a pair of narrators. Our main, unnamed, narrator listens to the tale as told by his grandfather on the grandfather’s deathbed in 2003. The grandfather is the son of Johan’s best friend who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. The grandfather and Johan met by chance two years previously. The old man, Johan, was in bad shape. He had tormented himself with the idea of somehow traveling back to 1914 to undo his mistake. Ernest, the narrator’s grandfather, tells him that World War I was inevitable. The assassination was just the spark to the gunpowder that touched the whole thing off. Johan admits that he came to this realization, but how can he know for sure?
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is not an easy read. While it is full of a delightful off-kilter humor, it’s hard to stay invested in a character who runs away all the time. The novel is punctuated by letters from Lorelei. Even though Johan didn’t receive them until much too late, you have to wonder how strong his love for her was if he didn’t brave capture and blame to find her. He’s a coward. He knows he’s a coward. This is a good book, however. It will challenge readers to find the worth in a man who doesn’t see the worth in himself. It asks unanswerable questions. (My favorite kind.) And the irreverent, pervasive humor keeps the absurdity of the twentieth century at the front of your mind.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.