In 1806, after conquering Prussia with his armies, Napoleon Bonaparte led a procession into Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate. Watching in the crowd is an eighteen year old man named Johannes Meyer who will soon find himself swept up in the tide of history.
Fortune is a novel which traces its way around the big events of the next hundred or so years, but it is not history’s big players who are the focus of this novel. Rather the spotlight is on the every day lives going on alongside the events in the history books. Johannes is less the protagonist of the whole book and more the character with whom we stay the longest, as a string of interconnected vignettes take the reader halfway across the globe and many years into the future.
Johannes finds himself first in the Prussian Army and then on the side of the French, and then finally, arrested as a deserter, he is transported to the colonies where he becomes John Myer, a fabled figure of 126 years of age (or so it is told). Another character, Elisabeth von Hoffman takes charge of her life after romantic disappointment and runs away with a General, only to have him arrested and taken away from her when the ship they are sailing on is seized. Elisabeth and Johannes could have been star crossed lovers but were fated never to meet, save for two significant almost-encounters written with such poignancy that their un-relationship almost makes this book a romance.
There are other characters too, and names which crop up in some sections will cross over into the storylines of others. The effect is a web, one that is peopled not only with human characters but with exotic animals- such as the electric eels bartered for by the odious Wesley Lewis Jr. But the animals are not the only things that are unusual about the plot of this book. It’s better discovered in the reading but suffice to say that a Revolution era guillotine is put to work in a macabre scientific experiment, the slave trade in the West Indies is laid brutally open, and shrunken heads are collected like treasures. (This is not a book for those with weak stomachs, and it showcases the less savoury practices of history alongside the marvellous and the majestic.)
The novel’s vignettes are broken up by titles, almost like those you might see in a silent movie. While the time we spend with each character is always brief, and the reader never gets to know these figures fully, the true protagonist of the book is really the march of time.
Fortune is perfectly paced and more-ish, that delicious unicorn, the book you can read in one sitting that still satisfies. Not a word is wasted. There is a sense of inevitability to the things that happen and a pattern of history repeating itself through a series of wars and injustices, leading this reader to the conclusion that the true hero of the story is really history itself.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Lenny Bartulin’s Fortune is available now through Allen and Unwin.