The fanfare for this mammoth 770-page World War II novel sounded a dissonant chord or two. Is author James Thackara a literary genius with the depth of Dostoyevsky and Melville, as his publicists rave? Or is he, as some critics grouse, a pretentious poseur? In fact, The Book of Kings turns out to be one of the most ambitious, eccentric, morally driven books ever run off a press.

At its most frustrating, it is indeed grandiose in the manner of self-taught philosophy. Lyrical passages are artificially sweetened. But for much of its length, inspired writing gives impassioned witness to the destruction of 50 million human beings by totalitarian ideas, insane or wicked tyrants, and feckless democracies. Thackara reminds those who have forgotten and teaches those who never knew that World War II was more about evil than about heroism.

This is not the blue-collar combat experience of American moviemaking. The major characters of The Book of Kings, beginning with four young men who room together at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 1930s, move at the highest levels of European society, government, or military life. One of them knows Hitler; his friend becomes a world-renowned antifascist writer. Others include a famous film star and an important Wagnerian soprano. These grand beings have highly attenuated emotions.

Nonetheless, most will directly experience the horrors of the war, and the novel thus becomes propaganda at its most idealistic and benign. When portraying concentration camp atrocities or battlefield slaughter in high-resolution detail, Thackara's elevated language accurately hits the high key of his humanistic theme.

Unfortunately, the cat's out of the bag in postwar episodes. Elevated dialogue becomes pompous or goofy when the guns fall silent; noble ideas curdle into elitist fantasies. For a humanitarian, Thackara has a disturbing penchant for believing his characters superior to the bulk of humanity. Even so, this original if flawed novel is rewarding for its view of the war as primarily a European tragedy, its high-minded if self-righteous aims, and its stunning scenes of credible action in a world gone morally dark.

Charles Flowers, a freelance writer in Purdys, New York, recently received The Stephen Crane Literary Award.

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