John Calvin Batchelor is a writer with serious artistic intentions, but he tends to use the novel the way Theodore Roosevelt used the presidency--as a bully pulpit.
Those who consider the novel the appropriate vehicle for lofty preachments will find much to like in this ambitious book. Tackling such weighty themes as fate and free will, good and evil, God's ways and man's, Batchelor concocts a fabulous narrative that takes a band of unlikely heroes from Sweden to Antarctica and depicts, along the way, nothing less than the End of Civilization as We Know It. Ambitious? Well, just a touch.
The narrator and protagonist of this once-and-future apocalypse, Grim Fiddle, is conceived in 1973, when his mother, Lamba, a Norse sybil of sorts and the daughter of a dogmatic Lutheran minister, seduces an American draft dodger in the telephone booth of a seedy Stockholm bar. When Grandfather Fiddle threatens to put his bastard grandson up for adoption, Lamba returns to the place of her deflowering and leaves the child in the care of his father, Peregrine Ide, and his American cohorts-in-exile--Israel Elfers, Guy Labyrinthe and Earle Littlejohn. This curious little family scrapes by on odd jobs (Guy and Earle play hockey, for instance) and such outrageous entrepreneurial ventures as Let's Go Viking, a summer camp for American children "mostly of Norse extraction."
But Peregrine Ide, we learn, is lovesick, terribly lovesick. While he has languished in exile, his sweetheart Charity Bentham has married a talented architect and proceeded to make a name for herself as an economist, spreading the utilitarian doctrine penned by her famous ancestor. (Batchelor is fatally drawn to emblematic names.) And now, in 1990, she is coming to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. But just when Charity's moment of glory arrives, mayhem erupts; Peregrine, gone berserk, kills her husband, and is nearly killed himself.
With Peregrine in prison, the family of exiles grows sadder by the day; things are getting pretty rotten in the state of Sweden, too. Staggering under the shock of Middle East wars, the country is taken over by the radical evangelical right. Eventually, granddad Mord Fiddle rescues the whole crazy lot of Americans and their various friends, taking them aboard his large schooner, the Angel of Death.
Just in time, too, because Sweden, like the rest of northern Europe, is on the brink of anarchy. It is with the onset of this dark age, the "Age of Exile," that Grim Fiddle undergoes the first of many profound sea changes, vacillating, for example, between the humanism of Israel and the severe, uncompromising Christianity of Mord. Separated for a time from his family and embroiled in the bloody struggle for the Falkland Islands (a bit of fancy that Batchelor imagined before it became fact), Grim becomes an almost superhuman warrior. But endless suffering and the loss of his loved one turns Grim into a cold creature--as cold and severe as the Antarctica over which he briefly rules, a Ghengis Khan of ice and snow, before he is brought down, imprisoned and begins to see the error of his ways.
These are certainly the makings of one whale of a tale, and, indeed, the epic sea-voyage quality, the charged, poetic language (which blends the repetition and parallelism of the great Biblical sentences with the heavily cadenced, alliterative lines of Anglo-Saxon verse) and the mighty struggle between the forces of good and evil recalls Melville's masterpiece, "Moby Dick." It is clear that Batchelor hopes to extend the dark, soul-searching tradition of Puritan literature--an altogether praiseworthy ambition in an age that confuses soul-searching with quick-fix therapy.
Yet, despite the elaborate staging and the high seriousness behind it, Batchelor's show never quite gets off the ground. Time and again, Batchelor comes up with potentially interesting situations, but he consistently fails to realize their dramatic potential. While much takes place, very little finally happens.
In narrative as in drama, action is the artfully arranged coincidence of event and character, but in "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica" the characters are finally too thin, too much like cardboard representations of this or that idea, to shape or be shaped by events. We hear, endlessly, what they have to say, yet we never really know why they say it. The worst fate that can befall these dim shadow figures, even Grim, the protagonist himself, finally occurs outside the novel: The reader--at least this one--ceases to care about their destinies.
A novel must engage as well as instruct--and that is one truth that Batchelor, for all his intelligence, appears to neglect.