The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (Claire North)

Posted: February 27, 2015 in fiction
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I am Harry August, born New Year’s Day 1919.

I am sixty-eight years old.

I am eight hundred and ninety-nine.

I have directly killed seventy-nine men, of whom fifty-three died in war of one kind or another, and indirectly murdered through my actions at least four hundred and seventy-one people who I know of. I have witnessed four suicides, one hundred and twelve arrests, three executions, one Forgetting. I have seen the Berlin Wall rise and fall, rise and fall, seen the twin towers collapse in flames and dust, talked with men who scrambled in the mud of the Somme, listened to tales of the Crimean War, heard whispers of the future, seen the tanks roll into Tiananmen Square, walked the course of the Long March, tasted madness in Nuremberg, watched Kennedy die and seen the flash of nuclear fire bursting apart across the ocean.

None of which now matters to me half as much as this.

Time travel happens like this. You live your life normally, and then you die. But at the instant of death, instead of moving on to Elysian Fields or purgatory or whatever your belief system tells you will happen, you’re born again. Not into a new body, into the same one. Same birth, just for the second time. In a few years, you’ll be a seven-year-old with a ninety-seven-year-old mind. And it’ll just keep happening, every death returning you to the beginning of the circle that is your life. The people who live like this are called Kalachakra, or ouroborans, because of the cyclical nature of their existence. People like me who only live one life are called linears. The Kalachakra tend to get to know each other, supporting each other, saving children from the monotony of pretending to be a kid for eighteen years, that sort of thing. These Cronus Clubs make sure that people don’t disturb the flow of history too much. We all will, of course, because there is no such thing as an unimportant person, but there’s a difference between saying yes or no to a date and explaining to Albert Einstein how microwave ovens work. Of course, rules in fiction exist so that a character can break them, so this is the story of a man who tries to use his repeated lifetime to accelerate scientific achievement to a breakneck pitch, so that he can create a quantum mirror and finally understand how the universe works. It’s compared to seeing the face of God. Harry August is here to stop him.

Harry’s a good guy, the illegitimate son of the heir of the house and one of the maids, conceived in a fit of jealous revenge when the young heir found out his wife was unfaithful. He’s adopted by the gamekeeper and his wife, and after that the course of his lives changes dramatically. The first time, of course, he goes through without thinking about it much. The second time, he’s freaking out about the rebirth and ends up committing suicide in an insane asylum at age seven. The third time, he grows up and goes searching the world for God. The fourth time he becomes a doctor. Then he finds the Cronus Club and his life changes.

My first life, for all it lacked any real direction, had about it a kind of happiness, if ignorance is innocence, and loneliness is a separation of care. But my new life, with its knowledge of all that had come before, could not be lived the same. It wasn’t merely awareness of events yet to come, but rather a new perception of the truths around me, which, being a child raised to them in my first life, I had not even considered to be lies. Now a boy again and temporarily at least in command of my full adult faculties, I perceived the truths which are so often acted out in front of a child’s sight in the belief that a child cannot comprehend them.

In his early lives, he fights in World War II, but the second time he feels more powerless than the first.

I wondered what I could do differently, with my knowledge of what was to come, and concluded that it was nothing. I knew that the Allies would win, but had never studied the Second World War in any academic detail; my knowledge was entirely personal, a thing lived rather than information to be shared. The most I could do was warn a man in Scotland by the name of Valkeith to stay in the boat two minutes longer on the beach of Normandy, or whisper to Private Kenah that there would be a tank in the village of Gennimont which had turned right instead of left and was waiting between the bakery and the church to end his days. But I had no strategic information to impart, no learning or knowledge other than a declaration that Citroën would make elegant unreliable cars and one day people would look back at the division of Europe and wonder why.

This early part of the book is when Harry is most like us, and spends the most time thinking about the nature of our lives. There is beauty in the linear flow of time, in the belief that this moment will never happen again, in valuing the transitory life that will vanish never to return. We live with an awkward grace, like camels crossing a desert. We stalk across the sands with our hump full of water carrying baggage that isn’t ours, caring for the humans who need us, keeping one eye on our loved ones’ comfort and the other on finding the next oasis.

Meeting the Cronus Club skews Harry’s life in a radically different direction. Instead of looking for answers for himself, he turns his attention outward, to the community. He accepts the fact that for people like him, death is unimportant. He’s caught in the 1960s by an American spy who tortures him to learn about the future, and he meets an older woman who gives him a knife and tells him to meet her in London in 1940. So he kills himself to escape the torture and remembers his date twenty years later/earlier. It shifts his focus from linear humanity to the Kalachakra, and one night as he’s dying in the early twenty-first century, a little girl warns him that the end of the world is speeding up. So he becomes a child and warns old people who are dying, and the message is passed back and back a few centuries, and Harry August goes to find the person responsible.

How do you assassinate someone who doesn’t die when you kill him? The simplest way is to prevent his ever being born. Find out who his parents are and kill them before the child is conceived, or interrupt his conception, or send his father a scholarship to a boarding school in Paris so the father never meets the mother in Boston. The romantic details of our lives are the easiest to disrupt because they’re not based on the colossal machinery of governments, and we direct our relationships based on emotions and whims instead of logic and historical inevitability. For this reason, ouroborans guard the secret of their origin obsessively. Another trick up their sleeves is to electrocute the brain, forcing the person to forget everything. Then kill them quickly. They’ll wake up as a baby, with one weird nightmare about being an adult with electrodes strapped to the head and being killed. It’s so gentle a way to eliminate threats that some Kalachakra choose it voluntarily. Akinleye is a woman who spends her lives going from one pleasure to another, soaking her eternity in heroin and ecstasy and whatever else is on hand. Until one night when her linear friend gets so high she dances off the edge of the yacht and drowns. After that, Akinleye just wants to forget. Some Kalachakra, like Harry, can’t forget, though. He’s forced through the Forgetting process a couple of times, but it never takes. He never forgets anything from any of his lives.

Harry and Vincent have a best frenemies sort of relationship, like Professor X and Magneto, or The Doctor and The Master. Frankly, the whole book has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it. It’s about a guy who travels through time but spends an awful lot of time in England in the late twentieth century, who achieves an ageless quality by being nine hundred years old but only looking twenty, who speaks of years as places to visit, and who must save the world and all of time from an evil genius. The difference is that Harry August doesn’t have an Amy Pond or a Rose Tyler to think he’s brilliant and stop him from killing things. He just doesn’t have the personality for it. In fact, he reminds me a lot of myself.

“Harry, don’t be obtuse. You do it sometimes to put people at ease, but I find it patronising and annoying. You know exactly what I mean. You try so hard to blend in, I find it frankly intrusive. Why do you do that?”

“Did you ask me here to tell me that?”

“No,” she replied, shuffling her weight a little in the bed. “Although now you’re here, I may as well inform you that this ridiculous notion you have that if people find you pleasant, you’ll have a pleasant time in return is stupid and naïve. For fuck’s sake, Harry, what did the world do to you to make you so . . . blank?”

“I can go . . .”

“Stay. I need you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re so obliging,” she replied with a sigh. “Because you’re so blank. I need that now. I need to forget.”

I totally do this, pretending not to know things to make other people feel comfortable. In a lot of situations, blending in takes precedence over being myself. In the past, I’ve been so successful at it that I’ve lost track of who I am and what I think and believe. I don’t think that’s likely to happen again, but the habit of blending, fitting myself into the personalities of the people around me, remains. As I think about the effect I have on people, it seems that I have an unusual ability to allow people to be themselves. People can tell me the bad things they’ve done or wanted to do and I don’t treat them differently because of it. I try always to answer vulnerability with gentleness, and that frees people to be increasingly vulnerable with me. My dad told me once that there’s no such thing as an ugly woman, that every woman can be beautiful if she’s made to feel special and loved. I think that goes beyond just women; every person is a compound of beauty and pain, and I want to spend my life fostering the beauty and alleviating the pain. Sometimes I feel like an enabler, but there are worse things to be. I’m obliging, yes, but I don’t think that makes me blank, though stupid and naïve are definite possibilities.

I think that being ouroboran is not necessarily a blessing. Spending centuries being ground down by the system can really hurt a person, like the woman who runs one of the Soviet Cronus Clubs.

For a second her chin drew back, and there it was, the flash of the woman Olga might have been, beneath the layers of jacket and wool. Gone as quickly as it had come. “White Russian,” she proclaimed. “I was shot in 1928,” she added, sitting up a little straighter at the recollection, “because they found out that my father was a duke and told me that I had to write a self-criticism proclaiming that I was a bourgeois pig, and work at a farm, and I refused. So they tortured me to make me confess, but even when I was bleeding out of my insides I stood there and said, ‘I am a daughter of this beautiful land, and I will never participate in the ugliness of your regime!’ And when they shot me, it was the most magnificent I had ever been.” She sighed a little in fond recollection.

It’s a lonely life, where you become increasingly convinced over centuries of life that any change you make, any effect you have, will ultimately be bad. They tend to think that any contact they have with the linear world will be negative, so they hide away from people and deal with depression as best they can. It erodes the personality until they sigh in recollection of the people they once were.

I think that a conviction of the temporary nature of life is a good thing. If this life is all we will ever have, then we had better make it the best possible life we can have. It keeps us from acting as if suffering were unimportant. It keeps us from seeking out suffering in order to achieve some benefit in a future life. I don’t think that religion is necessarily bad in itself, but it has led to some fairly awful ideas about how to treat ourselves and each other. Let’s celebrate all that’s good in our minds, bodies, and communities. Let’s put an end to self-hatred and prejudice. Let’s love more. Let’s make this life good.

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