On the Shelf: The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms by Ian Thornton

What if your life had so much forward momentum that you never once gave any thought about having to go backwards? And what if, just once, when it mattered most, going backwards was the one thing you had to do?
Such is the life, and eventual calamity, of Johan Thoms (pronounced Tomes), a promising student at the University of Sarajevo; a talented chess player, with a brilliant mind, an answer for everything, and quick wit for conversing with dukes and drunkards alike. When his father, a “mad professor (which was convenient given that he was one, albeit a fine one),” finally succumbs to the fullness of his madness, Johan must find work to help support his family. Through a family friend, and a key player in the novel, Johan becomes a chauffeur. His first, and most famous, client is the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The day Johan must drive him, and his pregnant wife, is June 28, 1914, through the streets of Sarajevo.
Like his historical counterpart Leopold Lojka, Johan Thoms takes a wrong turn down a dead-end street. Like Lojka, Johan Thoms cannot drive a car in reverse. And then, inevitably, gunshots turn the world on its head.
And so begins a tale that weaves historical fact with fiction to create a deeply heartfelt tale of how the young man who knew everything except how to reverse alters the course of the world throughout the twentieth century. Thematically, the big questions Thornton’s novel asks are, how responsible are we for the events around us? And if we feel responsible for them, how do we make amends? Or, in the words of Johan himself:

How could anyone have turned such a dream of a situation into such abject horror?

How could anyone have grabbed so much notoriety from the jaws of nobility?

How could anyone have fucked up so badly?

We follow Johan as he tries to atone for his mistake, purposefully exiling himself from friends, his one great love, and his family, trusting almost no one, and feeling forever responsible for the destruction, chaos, ruin, and death that occurred from one wrong turn and not being able to go backwards.
Structurally, Thornton tells Johan’s story as mise en abyme, a story-within-a-story. The narrative layering and frame make Johan’s story more intimate and gives his despair at the events he believes he set in motion more depth. As reader, I feel this kind of frame is necessary to believe such an epic tale and the depth of Johan’s personal despair. You leave the book feeling the depth and greatness of Johan’s heart.
A word of caution: Thornton does litter the novel with epigraphs and literary references that stretch across literary forms from Cowper, to Chaucer (a personal favorite of mine, admittedly, on page 44), to Tom Waits, to Walter Pater, among others. I don’t find these distracting, nor do I find them obstacles, though that may be a professional hazard of my day job. If I were to teach this novel, I’d say that you don’t need to have a working knowledge of the textual citations for their impact to be felt; think about how they work in their new context. Language is play, so seeing these words in different contexts should, I think, be taken as part of that play. But some readers could be put off by that kind of citation. I'd urge everyone, though, to give it a try and not miss this endearingly epic story.

Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is available in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia. Readers in the United States will have to, for now, order from abroad.


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