Monday, October 27, 2008

The Lies and Times of Colonel Pyat: Looking Back on Michael Moorcock's Pyat Quartet

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction 19.4 (December 2006), p. 22.

Over the last quarter century Michael Moorcock has related the life story of Colonel Maxim "Pyat" Pyatnitski, a minor character from the multiverse of his secret agent Jerry Cornelius. By the time Pyat is "dictating" his tale to Moorcock, shortly before his death in 1977, the colonel is keeping a secondhand clothing shop in Notting Hill, clutching scraps of a nonexistent former glory as he reminisces about Jerry's mother Honoria and bemoans the state of the world.

The Pyat Quartet, which began with Byzantium Endures in 1981, and continued with The Laughter Of Carthage (1984) and Jerusalem Commands (1992), was finally completed earlier this year with The Vengeance Of Rome, the appearance of which was barely noticed in the United States. While Random House published the first two books in the quartet-the first only after censoring it-it was unwilling to release the last two volumes of the tetralogy in the U.S.. Moorcock commented in an interview that Random House, and Alfred A. Knopf (to whom Random House offered the rights), feared a backlash from readers who wouldn't recognize the irony in Pyat's anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic rhetoric.1 Random House, however, declined to comment, and Knopf simply said it was not "appropriate for their list," the kind of uninformative banality usually reserved for form rejection letters to unpublished writers. (My own editions of the last two Pyat books came from Random House's British imprint, Jonathan Cape.)

Pyat's ranting aside, it probably didn't help Moorcock's case that his protagonist is a coke-snorting, anti-Semitic Jewish ex-Klansman and Fascist with a taste for eleven year old girls and Nazi stormtroopers. This is not, however, a simple work of politically incorrect shock. Moorcock's stated goal in writing the Pyat cycle was to "examine how the Holocaust could have been permitted by Western culture." It can of course be argued that no work of art can truly explain the Holocaust or any of the other great calamities of the twentieth century. One can also point out that some of this has been done before, particularly his indictment of technological utopianism, which has Pyat constantly identifying himself with H.G. Wells and American pulp science fiction, terming them sources of inspiration or fellow travelers. In particular there is something of Thomas Pynchon's V. and Gravity's Rainbow here, in Moorcock's protagonist "born coeval with the century" (Pyat was born on January 1, 1900), preoccupied with entropy and flying machines. As in Pynchon the dream of flight is here intertwined with the nightmare of the Holocaust, the tale all but starting with Pyat's childhood flight in a machine of his own making over the gorge of Babi Yar, scene of the infamous massacres in 1941.

Nonetheless, if Pynchon anticipated some of the story elements (just as Philip K. Dick often anticipated Pynchon) this tale is unquestionably Moorcock's own, and certainly the more eloquent. He succeeds in making the life story of an utterly incoherent man supremely readable and the device of the unreliable narrator, which so easily becomes little more than fodder for dry graduate seminar papers, actually the source of much of the fun. This has led to the inevitable comparisons with Harry Flashman and Baron Munchausen - though the deceits here are far more serious stuff. Pyat's strange odyssey across Europe, the Middle East and the United States, by turns harrowing and hilarious as Candide-like he and his friends stumble from horror to horror, is the story of the twentieth century, not just because of its considerable scope, but his particular way of telling the tale. Pyat's moralizing soars highest when his actions are their lowest, his protestations of purity and goodness most insistent when he is at his most repulsive. His endless professions of idealism and sensitivity are impossibly entangled with greedy, egomaniac self-seeking, convoluted bigotry, perversion, and a boundless capacity for hysterical denial, desperate rationalization and pathological lying.

Through the telling and retelling of his story Pyat, the son of a kosher butcher who abandoned his wife and child in the slums of Kiev, becomes a Romanov prince. The civilian huckster who wandered haplessly across the Ukraine and once rode in the back seat of a plane over embattled Odessa becomes a Cossack cavalryman, a World War I flying hero, a colonel in the White Army. The drop-out from the St. Petersburg Polytechnic becomes the youngest professor in its history, and an engineering genius who created every notable invention of the twentieth century, from the jet engine to the microwave oven.

As his friend Kolya tells him in the Gestapo headquarters in Munich, the evidence weighs very heavily against his version of events, but there is always an explanation, his triumphs always snatched away from him at the last moment. The "Violet Ray" that would have saved Kiev from the Bolsheviks and turned the tide of the Russian Civil War is disrupted when the city's power supply gives out. The multitude of flying machines he builds all crash right after take-off, if they get off the ground at all, and the schemes surrounding them always "inexplicably" turn out to be a con on someone else's part, forcing poor Max to run screaming that he is scapegoat and victim. Even the films which testify to his stardom in Hollywood's silent era as the "White Ace" and the "Masked Buckaroo" have all crumbled to dust.

Bad luck, base treachery, and above all, "Carthage" is always to blame-Carthage, the old adversary of Rome and "New Rome," Holy Byzantium. African, Semitic, Oriental Carthage is for Pyat the embodiment of all that's evil in the world, a fantastic, conspiratorial projection of all he imagines stands against his utopia of a triumphant, Christian Russia, liberated Constantinople and flying cities which civilize the world and explore the cosmos. The Jews, the Muslims, the Catholics, the socialists and whoever else Pyat does not like at a given moment are all identified with it, and its presence is felt everywhere as cunning, evil Carthage tugs on the invisible strings controlling the world.

"My past is reinvented for me by liars," Pyat laments when facing an SS interrogator in Dachau who presents him with a less seemly and more plausible version of his personal history, but, especially since the interrogator may well be just in his head, which liars? Whose lies? To what end? Even inside Pyat's telling of the tale he seems to lose his grip, things he had recognized as lies in the second book (like his record of combat against the Reds in the Civil War) appearing even to him to be indisputably true by the fourth.

The denials, rationalizations and delusions add up to a whole history, not just of Pyat but of the world in which he lived, and the lies long survive the reasons for them, the longevity and durability they achieve taken to its logical end in the book's final chapter. After five decades of separation, he meets his mother in London and learns the truth of his heritage, sees that the name on his birth certificate is not Maxim but Moishe-and he automatically concludes that this is all a mistake, that this woman is not his mother, he is not her son, and he walks right out on her, never to see her again. The happy ending that reconciliation could have allowed is defeated by the lies that had built up, making the truth inaccessible, turning the historical record into a self-serving, neurotic obfuscation. It may be as much a comment on the price paid for surviving the century, as the perfidity and delusion of those who made that century.

1. "Moorcock Blasts U.S. Publisher," Scifi Wire, 2 Mar. 2006.
Accessed at,
Oct. 27, 2006.


Olga Andreev said...

What a great summary of a magnificent series. The irony employed in these books is unbelievably sharp - I'm saddened that the books were either censored or not released at some time. These pieces of writing are incredibly important and like you said, they tell the story of the twentieth century - and it is a story told through lies, beautiful, grotesque, bizarre and chilling lies. Pyat reminds me of Karl Glogauer from Behold the Man, except the difference is that Glogauer ends up redeeming himself, while there could never be a redemption for Pyat.

Nader said...

Thank you very much for your comment Olga.

Incidentally, as I noted in a later post, Moorcock's sheer technical accomplishment in telling this complex story "through beautiful, grotesque, bizarre and chilling lies" (as you so aptly put it) - lies to which Pyat sticks all the way down to the last word on the last page - actually changed my ideas about what literary technique of this kind can achieve, much more so than the work of many more celebrated writers.

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