In my reductivist way, I have always chosen to regard Johnny Rotten (Lydon) as the brains of punk, and Joe Strummer (John Mellor) as the heart of punk, and much of that is down to Strummer’s affective “an ordinary bloke” persona. Salewicz’s encyclopedic biography reveals a complex subject who was anything but an ordinary Joe; he was a deeply flawed hero, with a heart as big as the world, a heart which, ironically enough, killed him. If the 10 years which have passed since his death have taught us anything, it’s that we shall not see his like again.
As the Great War fitfully starts in the Austrian Empire, we are introduced to our hero, Svejk, who has been “finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile.” Reconscripted despite his rheumatism (and certified imbecility), we follow Svejk in his progress through a loonybin, an army brig, a prolonged anabasis through Bohemia, and his incarceration as a Russian prisoner of war. Practically all of Svejk’s actions precipitate chaotic, if not downright catastrophic results; nevertheless, Svejk will endure because, while he may be an imbecile, he is most certainly nobody’s fool.
Sammy Barlach is a drifter with the words "fuck up" writ large upon him. He basically is a stray dog, blessed with brilliant turns of phrase, cursed with an abnormal degree of self-awareness, always on the lookout for "those that will have" him; in essence, he is trying to find a family. And in finding the Merridews, boy does he ever find one. This novel might offer the most succinct explanation of why those at the bottom can't climb their way up: they are all too busy clobbering each other.
"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change" is the keynote paradox propounded by Tancredi Falconeri to his uncle, Prince Fabrizio Salina, as the young impoverished nobleman goes to join the Garibaldini to fight for an independent Sicily and a unified Italy. Don Fabrizio is taken aback; he, after all, lives his life on a Copernican paradigm, with himself at the center of the universe. Tancredi is representative of a Darwinian world, with his ability to adapt to changing circumstances, such that we modern readers, unlike the prince, are occasioned no surprise when Tancredi renounces the sans culottes for a position of power in the new regime. Tancredi rises to ever greater heights, while Don Fabrizio is left in melancholy contemplation of the passing of an old order which he knows was unworthy of mourning.
This is an absolutely wonderful, elegiacal work, leavened throughout with moments of great humor.
For fans of American Hustle.