"THE MAN WHO was known for years in the Portobello Road
area as 'Colonel Pyat' or sometimes simply as 'the old Pole', and who,
in the 60s and 70s, was Mrs Cornelius's regular evening consort at
The Blenheim Arms, The Portobello Castle and The Elgin (her favourite
public houses), collapsed during the August 1977 Notting Hill Carnival
when a group of black boys and girls collecting for Help the Aged in Carribean
fancy dress entered his shop (one of the few open) and demanded a contribution.
His heart had failed him. He died at St Charles Hospital some hours later.
He had no next of kin. Eventually, following a great deal of unpleasant
publicity, I inherited his papers1."
Thus does Michael Moorcock
begin the preface to his 1981
the checkered career
of "Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski
", aka "Dimitri
", aka many, many other things.
Presented as an autobiography, Colonel Pyat traces his life from his
early childhood in turn-of-the-century Kiev2, until the time
he flees Russia for good around 1920 during the Russian Civil War.
It is a tale of a precocious if self-centered child striving to fulfill
his imagined potential, but being swept along by events with everyone else.
We are led through such a labyrinth of bombast, projection, self-deception,
betrayal, degradation, assertions of cleverness, deeds of valor, and academic
achievement, all while the Russian Empire is dissolving in a maelstrom,
that it becomes difficult to tell what is truth and what is a lie3.
This is classic Moorcock, and then again it is a whole different kettle
of borscht. Like many Moorcockian anti-heroes, you will intensely dislike4
Colonel Pyat, all the while hungering for his next exploit. On the
other hand, you will not be able to knock this novel off in an afternoon
as you did with his Elric novels.
There is little of The Eternal Champion to Colonel Pyat, despite the
tie-in via Mrs Cornelius. Russia during the Revolution is kaleidoscopic
enough to constitute a multiverse all by itself. Byzantium Endures
is followed by the 1984 sequel The Laughter of Carthage, and
finally 1992's Jerusalem Commands (neither of which I
Mr. Moorcock graciously provides us with facsimiles and
transcripts of these manuscripts, providing insight into the character
of Colonel Pyat. These excerpts are somewhat disassociative
This is the source of our title; Russia
has styled itself
the successor to Byzantium
many times throughout the modern era.
Well, this being fiction, of course it is all
Make no bones about it, Pyat is a product of his times
and culture. His mother raises him to believe his father is a Cossack
hetman, not the bastard
offspring of a transient Jewish radical (possibly
his gang-leader "uncle" Semyon, possibly Trotsky
) as everyone else assumes.
This identity confusion
is a constant theme throughout the book and is
the source of his hatred of all races except the one be imagines himself
to belong to.