An easy history of the twentieth century
I rarely get to read fiction books these days, but that changed this holiday when, on advice of Helanya, I decided to tackle Ken Follett’s Century trilogy. The books follow families (and later extended families) in five countries: Wales, England, Russia, Germany and America. And it is epic in scope: the first book, Fall of Giants, covers roughly WWI and its immediate aftermath (1900s to 1920s), the second, Winter of the World, covers the rise of socialism, fascism and WWII (1930s-1940s), and the third, Edge of Eternity, spends an inordinate amount of time in the 1960s (the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination, and the civil rights movement in the US) but then moves rapidly to conclude with the fall of the Wall. A brief epilogue describes Barack Obama’s victory speech in Chicago.
The story begins with Bill Williams and his sister, Ethel, raised in a strict (Godly) household in a fictional town in Wales. Billy is thirteen and about to begin work in the local coal mine, while Ethel, strong and sexy, works in the estate of Lord Fitzherbert and soon begins an affair that would have repercussions in all three books. To give a sense of the intertwined nature of the story (spoiler alert): Ethel’s illegitimate son fights in WWII against his aunt’s secret husband, becomes a Member of the British Parliament, marries an American women who is the daughter of a Russian bootlegger, and has a dyslexic son who becomes one of the world’s most famous musicians.
Ken Follett won’t win the Nobel for Literature, but he has created something quite wonderful. History writing is often criticized for being dry and detached – ‘just one damn fact after another’ – but this historical storytelling is everything but dispassionate. It’s easy to learn about historical events – the Battle of the Sommes, the storming of the Winter Palace, Pearl Harbor, the Freedom Riders movement, Cuba, Vietnam, Watergate – when beloved characters are intertwined in the plot, often on both sides. Here the stories of two Russian brothers, Grigor and Lev, are a fascinating case in point: Grigor wants to go to America but ends up giving his ticket to his lazy and murderous brother, Lev. Their paths diverge dramatically: Lev will become a rich man, a movie producer, his (illegitimate) son a US senator. Grigor will start the Bolshevik Revolution, help introduce communism to Russia and remain a man of power within the Russian elite. But in comparison to Lev, Grigor’s family will be relatively poor, will experience continuous shortages of food and other basic necessities, will be continuously harassed by the secret police, will be ill-equipped in all the wars they fight, and, ultimately, will see the system implode on itself. For those who favour communism, this series is a stark reminder of why it does not work.
It’s difficult to be critical of such a series, but with such an epic scope, some things are missed. There is little mention of the world outside Western Europe, Russia and the United States. Latin America (apart from Cuba) hardly features. Asia (apart from Vietnam and Japan) hardly features too. Africa might not exist; I think South Africa gets three mentions, one on the Boer War and two on apartheid. The character who recommends that France remains in the post-WWI negotiations may have been Jan Smuts, but the remarks are attributed to a British lord. Nelson Mandela or African independence should have received an honourable mention, especially during the discussions on civil rights.
But these are small qualms. Together, the three books are more than 2500 pages. That’s already bordering on encyclopedic. Ken Follett has given us the easiest way to learn about a century that won’t be easily forgotten.