He would stay. He had to tay. If he went away now he would be denying everything that had happened, everything that he had chosen to believe in, everything that had chosen him to believe it. (p. 140)
I'm 12 years too late to experience this novel as Jan Mark intended: an exploration of the millennium and the mythology surrounding it. But though the millennium itself has passed with a bang and a whimper, The Eclipse of the Century is still a fascinating and fantastical read. (On a par, for me, with Useful Idiots, my favourite so far of the late Jan Mark's novels.)
Keith, a university student, almost dies in a car accident: his near-death experience includes a vision of a city he's never seen before, and a woman telling him to join her in Qantoum "under a black sun at the end of a thousand years". Recovering, Keith seeks out information on Qantoum -- most of what he finds comes from 19th-century travel books -- and eventually sets out on a journey into the hidden heart of Asia. It's almost as though he's travelling back into the past: plane to Tashkent, train to Qantoum Junction (in the imaginary Central Asian Republic of Iskanderistan) and then a twenty-mile walk along a disused railway line.
Arriving, he encounters the Officer of the Day, one Lieutenant Kijé. (Keith isn't familiar with Russian literature, and doesn't realise he's encountered a deserter who's hoping to erase himself from the Red Army's lists). Kijé introduces him to the movers and shakers of Qantoum: former UN soldier Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, Ernestine Fahrenheit who runs the Museum, Lady Maisie Hooke who never quite got around to leaving, and thirteen-year-old Zayu, who appoints herself his guide and mentor.
Qantoum is where the Sturyat, a peculiar tribe of nomads, have been waiting these five hundred years. They can't leave until their soul-stones -- confiscated by a local Khan in the sixteenth century, and more recently taken for study by archaeologists -- have been returned. They're fascinated by Keith's account of his dream: they believe that he is the first of many who will 'come from east and west', heralding the return of the Sturyat to where they came from. (Wherever that might be.) This will, apparently, coincide with a 'black sun'; an eclipse only visible from Qantoum. Or possibly when they speak of 'a wonder in the heavens' they mean something else?
Everything is strange. There is no electricity, and no mobile phone reception -- Qantoum 'exhibits no signs of life whatsoever in the electronic sense' (p. 183). The area has no mineral or oil wealth, no natural resouces, nothing to commend it. The desert that surrounds the town claims lives: the sand kills them, claims Zayu. There is a dog wandering the town, with a friend who has distinctly lupine features. And there are three westerners, including a photographer and an astronomer, who are far more curious than Keith.
A complex, tragic and subtle novel: though written for a young adult market, there's nothing childish about it. PTSD, murder, colonialism, and dementia plague the characters, who nevertheless maintain a compassionate decency in the face of an uncertain future. It's also, in places, extremely funny; and it has the air of a travelogue, as though these are places that the author has visited (the crumbling industrial zone, the narrow maze of the Old Town, the cathedral and the market).
I found the ending abrupt and shocking: I'd been lulled into the hope of a miracle, an epiphany, a transformation. I like The Eclipse of the Century all the more for managing to surprise me.