By Jim Feast
Michael Moorcock’s Byzantium Endures put the reader in an interesting, indelicate position. You’ve heard of the unreliable narrator. That is one feature of this book. The narrator Maxim Pya is a youth growing up in the Ukraine at the time of World War I. He often brags about his futuristic design ideas and his varied successes in impressing his professors, which are not always credible. This is a familiar strategy with unreliable speakers as seen in the third section of The Sound and The Fury, for example, or in Lardner’s baseball novel You Know Me, Al.
However, Moorcock introduces the concept of the “unreliable reader.” Here’s what I mean. At a key juncture in Pyat’s life, he is to take an oral exam and give a talk at his engineering college in order to obtain his degree; but as he tells the story, it becomes unclear (given his unreliability) whether the audience reaction is one of jeers or cheers, and then whether the “special” degree he is to be awarded is a high accolade or a put-on.
Now, usually in a story with an unreliable narrator, he or she eventually gets a comeuppance. In the Faulkner novel, the stingy Jason ends up robbed by Quentin, whose money he has been stealing. As this denouncement seems to be approaching in Byzantium, society disintegrates as the Communists take over the state and civil war breaks out. Was Pyat’s triumph real or imagined? The reader will never know since his university career is nipped in the bud. And this unclarity shadows every page of the novel because the reader has to relate her feeling about the veracity of Pyat’s report on his college performance to each new incident in which the narrator’s truth is called into question. Indeed, the reader may have to constantly revise her assessment of the college scene with each new turn in the plot.
But let’s go deeper. The book’s theme is war and the chaos that comes into everyone’s life as they are affected by it. (Incidentally, the theme of my wife Nhi Chung’s memoir of the Vietnam War.) Moorcock develops this theme in the hero’s loss of his career track in academia so he ends up being a tossed-about refugee ineffectually trying to save his mother and sweetheart. Moreover, the author also shows this in revealing how that the great cities: Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa, which he describes as they existed before the conflict as bustling, variegated and magically colorful, are demolished during the conflict, depopulated so each loses its special grace and willfulness. But most creatively, Moorcock allows the intrusion of the war to break the typical trajectory of a novel with an unreliable narrator, so whether he is telling the truth or fibbing about key incidents is never revealed. Moorcock shows the destruction of war insinuates itself even into the structure of fiction.
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