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Ok, this is a long review but I feel this book warrants it! If you stick with me, you'll soon know why!
Julian Barnes is an English born writer whose works have often been cited as post modernist. He was born January 19th 1946 in Leicester and is seen in literary circles as one of the most progressive and respected authors of modern day literature. Barnes also writes crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. His best known works include 'A History of the World in 10½ Chapters', 'Flauberts Parrot', 'England England' and 'Arthur and George'. "Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can't we leave well alone? Why aren't the books enough?" (Julian Barnes)
'A History of the World in 10½ Chapters' is an excellent example of a post modernist text. Barnes challenges the things that are inherent in our modern day society and that we take for granted as being 'true'. First published in 1989, there has been much debate as to whether this work can actually be classed as a novel in the true sense, it has been cited as a short story collection, a series of essays and many other things. The reason for this is that the stories, while connected, do also stand alone as works in there own right and a reader would not necessarily have to read the novel in its entirety to enjoy a part of it.
The first chapter in the novel deals with the explanation of Noah's Ark. In this story, a woodworm is the narrator, having been excluded from the selection of animals, the woodworm is part of a small band of stowaways who have managed to live undetected on the Ark, thereby ensuring the survival of their species. 'In fact like several other species, I was specifically not chosen. I was a stowaway; I too survived; I escaped (getting off was no easier than getting on) and I have flourished' The first challenging assertion is that not all the animals were chosen to be on the ship - only those thought to be of use. Noah is described as a 'hysterical rogue with a drink problem', quite removed from the traditional view of Noah as being righteous and god fearing. The woodworm goes on to assert that the animals onboard the Ark we subjected to cruelty and degradation of the highest order. The Unicorn is described not as a mythical beast but an actual living animal who was sacrificed to satisfy the hunger of Noah and his sons. By this inclusion, Barnes is trying to provide us with a fictional explanation to a modern mystery.
The second chapter deals with a terrorist attack onboard a tourist cruise in the Adriatic. The main character of the story, Franklin Hughes is a TV personality who is guest lecturing on the ship. He is not a likeable character - despite having plenty of charm, he appears to have questionable morals and is mainly concerned with matters only concerning himself. When the ship is hijacked by the Black Thunder group - a political movement consisting of Arabs trying to punish the Western world for the atrocities they have deemed to have been committed, Hughes is chosen to explain the situation to the passengers onboard the ship. The situation being that the group will be executing two passengers every hour until the Western governments agree to the terms of the group. Hughes is faced with a decision, he can either save the life of his companion, Tricia Maitland by saying that she is his wife and thereby giving her Irish citizenship, however by doing this, he is going to risk the wrath of the other passengers as ultimately he is sacrificing their lives. Hughes chooses to save Tricia and when the other passengers revolt against their 'spokesman', Tricia feels little sympathy as she has seen Hughes for what he is - self centred.
In the Wars of Religion (Chapter 3), we once again meet the woodworm. This is a curious chapter but serves a higher purpose by posing some more questions for us to ponder. In this story, we are invited into the world of a French court in 1520 where a woodworm is on trial for the crime of bringing a Bishop to imbecility by causing him to fall from his throne after gnawing through the wood. This is a very interesting chapter indeed as Barnes not only challenges the views of religion which we have been taught are true, but he also challenges his own truth in an echo to the first chapter. 'Therefore the question which I lay before the court as the essential question in this case is the following: was the woodworm ever upon Noah's Ark? Therefore it follows that the woodworm was not upon the Ark, but is an unnatural and imperfect creature which did not exist at the time of the great bane and ruin of the deluge'
The fourth chapter is The Survivor. This tells the story of a world at war with the expected next step being nuclear attack. The main character in the story is a woman who is so disillusioned with her life, she feels that the only way to escape and manage to survive the 'end of the world' is to take to the seas. Which she does with food rations and two cats. The chapter is mainly consisted of her struggle to survive and we are informed of this through a series of lucid dreams and rants.
The next chapter, Shipwreck, is split into two parts. The first tells the story of the French ship, The Medusa and its fated journey in 1816. Barnes describes how after the ship strikes a reef, the crew construct a raft in order to survive. Whilst on the raft, the sailors find that they are at sea for longer than anticipated and resort to violence and cannibalism in a bid to preserve their lives long enough to be rescued. This is the most hopeless of all the chapters in the book and is filled with desperation and despair. The second part of the chapter focuses on a painting, 'The Raft of the Medusa' by Gericault. Barnes questions why this painting was created and offers insight into the technicalities. All done to pose the question, what meaning does this piece of art hold? Are there any aspects of it which are true and therefore discredit the original version of events as told to generations thereafter. Barnes does allow Gericault some artistic license with the events that unfolded and explains these 'Truth to life, at the start, to be sure; yet once the process gets underway, truth to art is the greater allegiance' The point I feel that is being made here is that art does not necessarily have to be true but who is to say that it is untrue? It is someone's representation of what they believe to be and how can we say with all certainty that this is not closer to the real course of events than we expect?
The Mountain is the tale of a woman who sets out on a personal mission to climb Mount Arafat. She is a wealthy, Christian woman and to take on such a task seems at first ridiculous. When she does eventually arrive at the mountain, she sees grapes being grown in a vineyard, something the bible does not permit, due to 'Noah's drunkenness'. When the vineyard and village surrounding it are destroyed by an earthquake, God's wrath is seen as the reason.
Three simple tales are three tales that are anything but simple. The first is the tale of a survivor from the Titanic, the second the story of Jonah and a sailor who were swallowed whole by a whale and the third is the true story of a shipload of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and being refused safe haven. All these stories share a common theme of divine retribution and salvation, for those being granted it and also those not. It is arguably the most political of all the chapters and as such is more factual based than the others.
Upstream!, chapter 8 is a series of letters written by an actor on set in a jungle, far away from what he sees as 'civilisation'. As there is a shift in the writing style, this ultimately has an impact on us as readers. Whilst reading this chapter, I felt more personally connected with the story possibly also due to the sheer amount of dimensions that are added. This chapter questions whether we are right or wrong to believe that our way is the right way no matter what and especially preaches tolerance.
Chapter 9 tells the story of an American Astronaut on the moon landing who hears the voice of god telling him to find the remains of the Ark on Mount Arafat. The astronauts wife, fearing he is delusional, stands by her husband anyway until he is able to build up support for his venture by being a convincing public speaker and fairly soon, everyone is behind his new mission. This, aside from being a comment of the strength of faith, also holds a very strong message about love, that true love can conquer all if you believe in it.
The final chapter is The Dream. It seems fitting that Barnes end his novel with the continuation of life in this chapter. Various issues are explored; but it is the depiction of heaven which is the dominating factor. Barnes describes heaven as a place with room service, where you can order whatever your heart desires. Our narrator asks for sex, endless rounds of golf, cooked breakfasts and the chance to meet famous people. At the end of this chapter, we reach a very important point - arguably the point of the novel. The narrator asks why we have the notion of heaven and hell and the response comes '"Perhaps because you need them" she suggested "because you can't get by without the dream" We are given the explanation that notions of heaven, morality and the universe; the beliefs and conflicts are all created by us as a coping method - something to get us through everyday life without causing us pain.
I know you're probably thinking why bother with the book now after reading this but trust me you don't want to miss out on this! I could have written for another 100 pages on this book it is so breathtakingly excellent and I feel it challenges us in so many different ways!
Thanks for sticking in here for so long!
*Also published on Ciao*