This is the first book in Moorcock's Pyat Quartet, also known as Between the Wars. Published in 1981, the series explores the roots of the Holocaust which, Moorcock says, are found in "thousands, perhaps millions, of minor refusals to confront intolerance and to permit, even promote, prevailing prejudices". At the centre of those refusals Moorcock places Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski, virulently anti-Semitic and in denial about his own Jewishness. Pyat is a fantasist, a drug addict and perhaps the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Convinced he is a genius inventor, Pyat travels from Kiev to Odessa to St Petersburg and back again as the country draws closer to revolution. Along the way he meets crooks and princes, prostitutes and soldiers and is often unable to determine which is which.
It's never made explicit just how unreliable Pyat is. You strongly suspect that his interpretation of events is a long way from what actually happened but Moorcock commits you to seeing the world through Pyat's eyes. There are no giveaway lines from other characters, no knowing winks from author to reader.
It's enviable but profoundly unsettling. There are segments of the book where I don't know for sure what happened. I think I know based on reading between the lines of Pyat's narrative but I can't be sure.
Moorcock conveys Pyat's character perfectly, capturing the mixture of naivety and bigotry and mostly keeping him sympathetic - no mean feat in the circumstances. Pyat's delusions are frequently comic ("It is enough to say that Marx and Spenser did not invent, I think, the underpant.") but his racist rants become tiring.
They need to be there, else one would start to fall for the man's charm and be carried along by his sense of wide-eyed excitement but it's hard work.
It took Moorcock 25 years to complete the series. He says: "Entering the personality of a monster became so exhausting I took longer and longer breaks between novels." I can sympathise. I'm going to wait a while before reading the second in the series.