If any serious student of the modern English novel is still unconvinced that Anthony Burgess is among the finest writers the language has found, "Any Old Iron" should dispel that belief.
The brilliant British writer, whose 30-odd works of fiction, drama and criticism include "A Clockwork Orange," "Honey for the Bears" and "Tremor of Intent," has outdone himself with a mesmerizing tale of our century that tracks the interwoven stories of two families - one Welsh, one Jewish.The story, which stretches from the sinking of the Titanic through two world wars to the founding of the state of Israel, confronts the vagaries of existence unflinchingly but with the wisdom of learning and experience.
It is an unsentimental yet compassionate rendering of the life of the individual and of the state, whose purposes are so often served uncomprehendingly by its minions as they sidle toward their own appointments with destiny.
Harry, who narrates but is by no means the principal character, sets the novel's tone.
An articulate "retired terrorist and teacher of philosophy," Harry is an outsider, but one whose absorption of the milieu he observes and describes is complete.
The educated eye Harry brings to bear on the story of his brother-in-law, Reginald Morrow Jones, heightens the interplay of their families' lives with the turbulent events of the 20th century.
At the same time, however, there echoes in Reg's life a deeper reality that has persisted in the form of legends and myths handed down by the Welsh people through the centuries.
These echoes in turn resonate forward to the largely fruitless struggles of modern revolutionaries that form the backdrop for Reg's life.
"Any Old Iron" has many rewards. It is riveting on the superficial levels of language and narrative, but it will well repay the efforts of readers whose probing will unfold further meanings in the interconnections between the past and present.
The extraordinary overtones of the lives of ordinary people have been the stuff of many books that have made their authors rich. "Any Old Iron" may or may not further Burgess's probably already substantial fortune, but it certainly enriches us.