But how would you kill a million?

It’s only looking back on Michael Moorcock’s four Pyat novels, ending with The Vengeance of Rome, that I appreciate how funny they are. You wouldn’t think that a series about the life of a fascist who spends time in Dachau could (or should) be funny, but it is.

Moorcock has turned the inter-war period into one long orgy of sex and cocaine, a grotesque farce as told by a liar. After moving quickly in and out of favor with Mussolini in Rome, the exiled Russian Jew-in-denial Pyat comes to Munich, where he becomes Ernst Röhm’s lover, and, briefly, (in a shocking scene worthy of The Aristocrats), Hitler’s cross-dressing dominatrix. Pyat still dreams of a technocratic utopia, he designs gigantic tanks and other impossible weapons for his friends to build. But in the end he’s just a drug addict who jumps from one bed to the next.

It’s funny, in a very brutal way. But the comedy is not for fun. Moorcock is deadly serious. He’s trying to capture the mindset of the people who exterminated the Jews. The preposterous and grotesque events here are not Moorcock’s way of playing light with fascism and nazism, they’re his way of taking them seriously, while avoiding the clichés of Holocaust fiction. The madness follows naturally from that.

The result is full of insights into fascism, presented with disturbing vividness. I love it. The Pyat Quartet is, as a whole, one of the great novels of our time.

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