Thursday, May 30, 2013

The First World War illuminated through the lens of Follett's fiction

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Book One of the Century Trilogy
Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2010

Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants is the first of a trilogy of novels covering major political events of the 20 century. This first installment begins in 1911 and finishes as the dust clouds are settling across Europe and Russia after the First World War.

The hardcover edition is a hefty 985 pages, which isn’t surprising considering the extraordinary range of historical events and characters that Follett brings to life in this story. By all accounts, this is an epic narrative achievement that will keep readers riveted from start to finish.

The novel begins inside the home of David Williams, who is employed by the Miner’s Federation Union of South Wales. David’s son, Billy, is about to begin his working life as a collier at the age of 13 (not unusual for the time). His elder sister, Ethel, has just arrived home to wish him well in his new career. Ethel works as a housekeeper for Earl Fitzherbert and his wife, Russian-born Princess Bea.

Being poor and working class, Billy and Ethel inhabit a vastly different world than Fitzherbert and Princess Bea. But with Follett’s deft storytelling skills, all of these lives collide against the backdrop of socio-economic and political events between 1911 and 1924. In addition to the escalating tensions among the superpowers, Follett introduces other seminal events that were just as weighty as the war itself, including the Suffragette movement and the sharp class divisions between rich and poor in England, and the grinding poverty and desperation among the peasantry that sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution.

Fall of Giants is a populated mostly by fictional characters, although some real historical characters make cameo appearances – Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, King George V, Paul von Hindenburg – which gives the story a sense of heightened drama and authenticity. My favourite character is Grigori, a street-smart Russian who starts out working in a locomotive factory and winds up working alongside Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

As the First World War unfolds, Follett does a great job shifting scenes quickly and effortlessly – it almost feels as though he’s performing a magic trick. We move from the cramped, dusty mines of South Wales to the wood-panelled drawing rooms of Fitzherbert’s country estate to the squalid streets of St. Petersburg, without missing a beat. Follett keeps the action moving swiftly at all times, and he cleverly avoids the temptation of over-analyzing situations and bombarding readers with descriptions of weaponry and battles.

To get a sense of how precise and succinct Follett’s writing is, here’s a passage describing the thoughts of one of the central characters, Walter von Ulrich, a military attaché who is present at a meeting of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals at the beginning of 1917. The war is at a stalemate, and Germany is trying to figure out its next big move.
They waited two hours, then Kaiser Wilhelm came in, wearing a general’s uniform. Everyone sprang to their feet. His Majesty looked pale and ill-tempered. He was a few days shy of his fifty-eighth birthday. As ever, he held his withered left arm motionless at his side, attempting to make it inconspicuous. Walter found it difficult to summon up that emotion of joyous loyalty that had come so easily to him as a boy. Wilhelm II was too obviously an unexceptional man completely overwhelmed by events. Incompetent, bewildered, and miserably unhappy, he was a standing argument against hereditary monarchy.

The First World War claimed the lives of eight million men and left most of Europe in ruins. One cannot comprehend that type of human loss and the suffering and hardship that many more millions of people endured throughout Europe, Russia and the Commonwealth. With Fall of Giants, readers may not be able to comprehend the horrors of that war, but they will certainly better understand the complex network of alliances, events, personalities and decisions that led up to it.

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