Novel take on a key moment in history

Ian Thornton
Ian Thornton
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Call it the Butterfly Effect or Chaos Theory, but sometimes the decisions we make – even the seemingly insignificant ones – can result in unforeseen consequences, some more momentous than others. This thought-provoking notion is at the heart of Yorkshire-born author Ian Thornton’s accomplished debut novel The Great Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, now out in paperback.

It tells the fictionalised story of a young man whose one mistake on the streets of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 goes on to affect the lives of millions of people across Europe. “I read a piece in the Observer in about 1991 about a young guy – a student – who basically inadvertently set fire to the 20th century,” explains Thornton who grew up in Howden and Goole and now lives in Canada. “His cousin, who was a chauffeur, had the flu and he asked him to drive a car for him.” It just so happened that the car was carrying Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on that fateful day which – due to a driving error – led to the assassination that sparked the beginning of the First World War.

Thornton found this story fascinating and when he sat down to write a book in 2005, he knew it was the tale he wanted to tell. “By that time I had made some pretty dreadful decisions and mistakes in my own life,” he says. “On a different scale of course, but I transposed my life on to that of the would-be driver. When I went to Sarajevo there was conjecture about who was actually driving the car – there were two names, but the history professors could never decide which one it was. That allowed me the licence to do something with the story.”

The book is ambitious in scope and neatly executed in lyrical prose with a fine underlayering of dark humour, while the central character is a hugely engaging creation. Erudite, intelligent, funny, passionate and slightly eccentric, Johan Thom is enjoying his life as student in Sarajevo and has found love with an older woman when fate, chance – and his inability to reverse a car – conspire to alter the course of his life.

After the assassination, Johan blames himself for the deaths of the Archduke and his wife and, riddled with guilt as he watches the Great War unfold, he flees leaving behind friends, family and lover to wend his way through Europe and the 20th century.

The book has a wonderfully evocative sense of time and place and conjures up a whole set of striking visual images, so it is no surprise to learn that among the people who most inspired him, Thornton cites film directors David Lean, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, David Powell – and in particular the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. “I was always more of a film watcher than a reader as a youngster,” he says. “When I was writing the book I was spending a lot of time at the BFI on the South Bank in London – watching seasons of directors’ films.” He credits a Powell and Pressburger movie with prompting him to pay more attention to his own creativity.

“My road to Damascus moment came when I saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp for the first time,” he says. “I realised then there was some creative urge that I needed to address.” The book took him around two years to write but there then followed a period of editing and trying to get published. “A huge amount of time was spent just waiting for people to get back to me,” he says. But it hasn’t put him off – he is currently working on his second novel.

“It is very different, a sort of modern-day Clockwork Orange. I’ve done a lot of work on it already, but we had our second child recently and now that my wife has gone back to work I am a full-time dad, so it’s progressing very slowly. There’s nothing wrong with waiting – I think enjoying writing is really key.”

The Great Calamitious Tale of Johan Thoms, Harper Collins, £8.99.