Review published on July 27, 2017.
I find this a difficult book to describe as it is has a rather complicated structure. The author is present throughout the book, commenting on what is going on, especially in the introduction where he outlines the book’s argument. This is that life is only a story we tell and not necessarily true. In order to illustrate this, he relates the eventful life of Nicolas Notovitch. Nicolas was born in Tsarist Russia but then travels the world, working for the Russian anti-revolutionary secret service in the years before the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. In the course of his travels he discovers, in a lamasery on the India/China/Tibet border, an ancient manuscript called ‘The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ’ which claims Jesus was a Buddhist. Later, Nicolas also becomes involved with the mysterious appearance of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a text later used by the Nazis as a basis for anti-Semitism.
It’s the story of an intriguing life, which is further obscured by the fact that it’s presented in the book as being transcribed from recordings made by Nicolas in his old age and so we can never be sure how accurate his memories are. Theroux further keeps us at a distance and stops the reader from accepting the story at face value by using alienating effects. For instance, there are numerous interruptions to Nicolas’ story by Vincenzo, the Italian who is recording Nicolas’ life story on wax cylinders. Also, the use of anachronisms throughout – Twiglets and Diet Coke in the early 1900s – disturb the reader and stop too much involvement.
It’s not a book that can be read quickly – no beach read – but it does have a range of interesting characters. As much of it takes place in the world of international espionage, we’re never quite sure who each character is working for, or whether they’ve changed their allegiance, as several do quite spectacularly. But it is the book’s relevance to the present day that I found most revealing. Who could not compare Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitism and the blaming of all society’s problems onto one group to some of the attitudes we find in modern day Europe? As Theroux himself points out near the end of the book, there are no easy answers to society’s problems and it’s always easy to find a scapegoat to blame them on. Moreover, he implies that our present world of ‘fake news’ and lies repeated often enough being seen as true, are nothing new.
There are so many facets to this novel that I’m sure it would be ideal for reading groups. I certainly found it fascinating, especially the afterword where Theroux reveals how much of the novel is actually based on fact.
Sue Glynn 4/5
The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux
Faber & Faber 9780571281947 hbk Sep 2017