Review: The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms

IMG_3618The fictional tale of a man who, by a seemingly minor error, sparked the beginning of WWI, and in turn the global economical collapse leading to WWII and so on. This was the historical domino effect that “scorched the 20th century” all at the hands (or right hand) of a man named Johan Thoms. This in itself is a fabulous concept. Who WAS the man who drove the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia on that fateful June day, 1914? The man who drove them directly in front of Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip and straight to their deaths? The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms takes an otherwise anonymous man from history and shows what impact this severe action had on his life, his conscience, and his future.

At the beginning, before the Archduke and the black Packard and the imminent wrong turn, there was a gifted child who dazzled everyone he met with intelligence, knowledge and wit. As the blurb on the back says “Johan Thoms is poised for greatness”, he has every puzzle piece in line with the picture of a truly successful future. But after the catalytic event takes place, Johan places all the blame on himself and eschews everything from his former life, including his family, friends and lover. He scampers across Europe from one country to the next, living a nomadic and dreamy life (enabled by a seemingly bottomless bank account), but always on the run. He makes friends and traveling partners that include a young cancer patient, a stray dog, and an orphaned girl (to name a few). All these details reveal an exquisite life if it weren’t for the crushing (albeit, sometimes redundant) guilt that plagues him.

Our protagonist learned to pile regret upon regret and even a lifetime worth of strange successes and valuable friendships couldn’t make up for his deep shame.

Though I thought the book worked as an intriguing fictional “Life and Times Of…”, full of humour, quirk, and delight, it also crammed nearly 100 (eventful!) years and several generations into 300 pages, meaning that decades were skimmed in favour of daily episodes and long-winded reflection. The myriad of characters who appear, though fun and unique, seem simplistic, like cameos, even though many of them travel with our protagonist for years and years. I found Johan’s consistent avoidance of his former life, especially his unfortunate inaction concerning his love Lorelei, frustrating and a real missed opportunity. It seems as though our protagonist learned to pile regret upon regret and even a lifetime worth of strange successes and valuable friendships couldn’t make up for his deep shame.

The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is an interesting book based on a very interesting premise. But when that initial happenstance ends, so does the story’s urgency. I was left waiting for something to bring it back together again. Perhaps it is because the character himself cannot move past what he’s done, so neither do we (though the world and story definitely keep going). As the years go by, and it becomes less and less likely that he will remedy his feelings towards his past, I became less and less interested as to whether he did so or not. Despite the sharp wit and strength of the writing, I’m not sure if it is enough to make Johan’s story bloom beyond the shadow of his very big mistake.

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