Ostensibly the memoirs of an ÉmigrÉ--an old-clothes dealer in London--Moorcock's new novel moves well away from his...

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BYZANTIUM ENDURES

Ostensibly the memoirs of an ÉmigrÉ--an old-clothes dealer in London--Moorcock's new novel moves well away from his prolific fantasy/sf work, taking on pre- and post-Revolution Russian history in full array. Born Maxim Pyatnitski in Kiev, the narrator goes through thick and thin forever haunted by the fact that he's circumcised: the denial of his Jewishness leads him into a lifelong and virulent anti-Semitism, while those around him quite naturally take him for the Jew he is. Thanks to an apprenticeship in Odessa with his shady entrepreneurial uncle, ""Max the Herman"" (his Odessa nickname) gains entry into the city's bohemian splendors (poetry, cocaine, women, men); then, under an assumed Gentile name, he's a student in ""Peter"" (St. Petersburg)--which allows him access to the precincts of intellectual and political ferment. And, throughout, Max nurses his passion for inventing: while still a boy he made a crude flying machine in Kiev which crashed over the Babi ravine (scene of the massacre of Jews years later); and his skill and imagination soon become his pass to life through the successive waxings and wanings of White and Red power. (For the Whites, particularly the Ukrainian Petlyura, he attempts a prototype laser weapon; for the Reds, a more vulgar mechanical skill saves his neck.) Finally, then, Max becomes ""Colonel Pyat"": he remains an anti-Bolshevik, anti-Jewish cynic. . . yet also a sensualist, a pragmatist, and--always ironically--a Jew. What Moorcock attempts here, in fact, is a bravura impersonation: modern Russian history laid out with the care and lavishness of a good smorgasbord. And the resulting novel is indeed glassy, stylish, marvelously well-researched--at its best in the evocation of Russian train-travel circa 1920. But Max himself never comes to life, never functions as anything more than an emblem. So this grand-scale panorama, though historically vivid (it's a fascinating era), lacks a center--and, as one watches the events and scenery move by, the effect is most often that of an empty, cold construction.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1981

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1981