Humour helps sustain mission to avert an old tragedy
Time and Time Again By Ben Elton Bantam Press, 400pp, $32.99 HUGH “Guts” Stanton, a former special forces soldier turned celebrity adventurer, is summoned to Cambridge University on Christmas Eve 2024 and asked the following question by his former history professor, Sally McCluskey: ‘‘If you could change one thing in history, if you had the opportunity to go back into the past, to one place and one time and change one thing, where would you go?’’
After agreeing that World War I was the catalyst that precipitated all 20th-century horror, Stanton is trained by McCluskey and an elite clandestine outfit called the Order of Chronos, given extra guidance from the writing of Isaac Newton, and sent back in time to 1914, ‘‘the year of true catastrophe’’, to right ‘‘history’s
November 15-16, 2014 greatest single mistake’’. His mission: to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and to kill the Kaiser in Berlin. By accomplishing both, McCluskey assures him, he will single-handedly avert ‘‘[t]he terrible dictators, the wars and the genocides and the starvation to come’’ and save ‘‘[t]he Russian princesses murdered in that awful cellar with their poor jewels sewn in their knickers’’.
Were this the pitch of a debut novelist to a literary agent or publisher there is a high probability it would be met with howls of derision. As it is the synopsis for the latest novel by Ben Elton, author of 14 previous bestsellers and cowriter of groundbreaking television comedies The Young Ones and Blackadder, we should assume it was welcomed, praised and eagerly greenlighted.
Elton’s novels generally slot into one of two categories: there are the comic satires that riff on or spoof off current trends, global issues and cultural phenomena — the financial crisis in Meltdown (2010), reality TV talent shows in Chart Throb (2006) — and there are the more serious, and infinitely more satisfying, historical novels such as Two Brothers (2012).
Time and Time Again is unique for having a foot firmly in both camps. Stanton is a loner, his wife and kids killed by a hit-and-run driver. He senses why he has been picked for the job: ‘‘ No ties. No life. No future.’’
But Elton doesn’t allow his time-travelling assassin to stay maudlin for long and routinely hauls him out of his soul-searching funks by singing his praises. In doing so, an incongruous frivolity taints the proceedings. At one point Stanton is presented as so fit, wealthy and imposing that “James Bond himself would have been hard put to notch up any more cool points’’. Bernadette, love interest and stranger on a train, is a feisty Irish redhead (naturally with ‘‘emerald eyes’’) who champions votes for women and independence for Ireland — only to lose her rough edges and her built-up credibility by swooning over our irresistible hero.
And then there is McCluskey, a tweedy old crone who one minute is bewailing totalitarian atrocities and holding forth on Europe’s crumbling empires and the next is calling Stanton ‘‘devilishly dishy’’ and differentiating between drum and bass and Hi-NRG trance music. Worse, her madcap sermonising sounds uncannily similar to her creator’s hyperactive comic rants. She tells Stanton that Josephine despised Napoleon; however, ‘‘If that old town bike had put as much effort into servicing Boney’s boner as she put into pleasuring her numerous other lovers he might have hung around screwing her instead of prancing off to screw an entire continent!’’
Yet as Stanton assumes his Australian cover identity (‘‘Perth … the loneliest city on earth’’) and goes about his history-rebooting business in pre-war Constantinople, Sarajevo, Vienna and the military playground of imperial Berlin, it is hard not to get swept along by the novel’s momentum. Elton throws in every thriller component, from backstabbers and unlikely accomplices to numerous twists and turns, and there is