Thursday, April 28, 2011

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

Maybe it's because I didn't grow up going to church, but religion in books fascinates me. I especially like the retelling of Bible stories, but again, I'm not sure why. It may be that I enjoy the subversiveness of taking something that is so well known, and hold so much meaning for so many people, and changing the context. Messing with those stories that are a not insubstantial part of our society's foundation seems almost dangerous in a strange way. Dangerous and brave – and important. In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters Julian Barnes starts with Noah's Arc and then tries to move forward, but is almost inevitably sucked back into that defining motif of danger, death, and large passenger ships.

It's hard to know quite how to classify A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. On the one hand, it works quite well as a short story cycle, with stories that work independently of one another, but when read together have an added oomph. It's also sort of like a book of essays, filled with philosophy, literary criticism and discussions of art. I'm not sure it's even uniformly fictional. There are, however, 10 and a half chapters – the "half chapter" is inserted between Chapters 8 and 9 – as the title suggests, so if you read chapter by chapter, maybe it doesn't really matter how you define it.

The book opens up with "The Stowaway" a story about an impostor to Noah's Ark. The cheeky little narrator is quite critical of the choices Noah makes with regards to which animals will be saved. Rather like a primitive form a eugenics, Noah simply decides not to allow any undesirable or pesky creature aboard. And he's rather a brute about it. But he doesn't check quite carefully enough, and a family of woodworms – of which the narrator is proudly a part – manage to sneak on board to ride out the deluge in relative peace. The woodworm actually manages to make its way into most of the chapters, bringing with it a suggestion of hidden decay.

Barnes then moves on to a chapter about terrorists who take over a cruise ship. He is an author unafraid to shock his audience, and the tension he builds in this chapter is unreal. The stakes become so high, so quickly, that you don't even notice you've been placed on a modern-day ark. Here, though, everything is inverted. The stowaway is not a quiet, unassuming insect, but an imminently threatening and truly undesirably presence. Similarly, the person in charge is not the tyrannical Noah of the previous story, but a cruise director who is just as unsure as the passengers. History is doomed to repeat itself, Barnes seems to be saying, but see how it changes things up just slightly?

This sort of wink to the absurdity of things gives the book a kind of strange humour, or at least throws you off kilter just enough to appreciate that Barnes is arming you with perspectives that will help you later, when you reach New Heaven, or wherever else. But absurdity and irony, as fun as they are, are useless tools unless you can escape them. Enter the half chapter. Just when Barnes has you so completely confused as to his purpose, he interrupts his own history to tell you about love, about his sleeping wife. And it doesn't even matter, really, whether it's the real Julian Barnes or the fictional one talking, because what he is saying is that there's a reason all the rest of it matters. There's a reason we should examine past events and find the woodworms before their damage is irreparable, and that reason is love. Oh, it sounds ridiculous and cliché here, but that half chapter is perfectly timed for maximum effect, and it is stunning.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is strange and unexpected and the chronology of events it presents – it is "a history," after all – is very unlikely, but it is also a book that asks you to think about things. It doesn't force you to, though; if you want to simply read each chapter and not delve more deeply into what is going on, you can do that. But, if you want to think about it, Barnes has offered up a book that will reward you for it. Because as weird and, sometimes, disorienting as this book is, it has something really interesting to say. And, best of all, it has an interesting way to say it.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters
by Julian Barnes
First published in 1989 (cover image shown from Vintage International edition)

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