Saturday, January 3, 2015

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is a highly original work, a collection of 11 (or 10-1/2 if you prefer) short pieces--some stories, some more like essays--interrelated by several topics (ships, Noah, woodworm) and larger themes (history, love, the clean versus the unclean, and obsession). The stories are written in a variety of genres from epistolary to pseudo documentary to fable-like.

The first piece is a retelling of the story of Noah and the Flood, told from the perspective of a stowaway, one of the unclean that Noah rejected for passage on the Ark. The narrator (we learn near the end that it is a woodworm) not only despises the "monster" Noah, he points out the illogic of the Biblical story (how could all of those animals fit on a single ship--the ark was actually a small fleet) and the possibility that Noah and his sons had ulterior motives (providing a food supply for themselves post-flood).

The second chapter describes the hijacking of a cruise liner by Middle Eastern terrorists who not only kill passengers held hostage (Americans and Brits are sorted out to die first) but cleverly ruin the career of the story's narrator, an onboard entertainer/lecturer. The third chapter consists of a series of documents from a trial brought by a Catholic Church against a group of woodworms living in the church, whose activity has caused the bishop to fall and become an "imbecile."

"The Survivor" is set in a period following several nuclear accidents, when world war is at hand. The female protagonist sets out in a sailboat to search for an island safe from what she believes is a sure nuclear holocaust; toward the end of the story, however, she wakes up in a hospital, being treated by doctors who believe she had a breakdown because she broke up with her abusive boyfriend.

I won't describe all of the remaining chapters in great detail, but they include an analysis of a real painting and how it does and does not capture the events it depicts; the story of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in 1939; letters from an actor to his girlfriend describing a tragic movie shoot in the South American jungle; the story of an astronaut who, while on the moon, hears God telling him to find Noah and his Ark; and a description of heaven, where the occupants define what it is they want to experience in the afterlife. The half-chapter is entitled "Parenthesis"; in it, the author directly addresses the reader, discussing (primarily) love.

I do not profess to understand all of what Barnes is doing or saying in A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, but it is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Must we love one another or die (Auden)?  Is love what will survive of us (Larkin)?  When history repeats itself, is the first time tragedy, the second time farce (Hegel)? Does myth describe or become reality?  If you want to be challenged while simultaneously being somewhat awed by the author's ability to cross genres impressively, then I definitely recommend this book.

Favorite passages:

Women were brought up to believe that men were the answer. They weren't. They weren't even one of the questions. 

The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm. We think we know who we are, though we don't quite know why we're here, or how long we shall be forced to stay. And while we fret and write in bandaged uncertainty - are we a voluntary patient? - we fabulate. We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.

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