My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The first question one asks about Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is, of course, "why the 1/2?"
We don't arrive at our answer until we read the 8.5th chapter, Parenthesis, which, unlike its fictitious predecessors, is more akin to contemplative musing than short story. It synthesizes the stories that have gone before to show that, as we are told in one story, "Everything is connected, even the parts we don’t like, especially the parts we don’t like." But before we get there -
We begin with the gem of the book, a fictitious account of Noah's Ark recounted by a mysterious (not to mention unreliable) narrator who repudiates everything we know about the ark and only reveals his identity in the last sentence of the story, brilliantly crushing any barriers to the imagination that might have stood inside the readers' heads. Anything can happen if woodworm were aboard Noah's ark!
None of the stories that follow can match the wit and surprises of the first, yet all demonstrate Barnes's inexhaustible capacity for wit and storytelling. In The Wars of Religion, he demonstrates his versatility through legal-speak (the story is of a man vs woodworm trial before the court). The Survivor, with its mentions of "persistent victim syndrome" and "fabulation", puts a modern take on the 'ark' - in this story, a boat carrying a doomsday-fearing woman and two cats. Upstream! is hilarious and consists of letters written by a pretentious and ignorant narrator filming a movie with an Indian tribe.
Thus, all stories differ wildly in terms of plot; however, the best part about reading this book was discovering the common motifs that bind them. One is the woodworm, which is seamlessly referenced in nearly all stories; the other is the ark, which crops up in the form of a raft in Shipwreck and the St. Louis ship in Three Simple Stories. An element of the holy is present in nearly all stories as well, with the curious pilgrimage in Project Ararat and the description of 'heaven' in the final story, The Dream.
The first Julian Barnes book I read was The Sense of An Ending, and a memorable line from it is: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
I was reminded of this quote when reading this line from A History of the World in 10½ Chapters: "We know how to distinguish myth from reality. We are sophisticated people". The ironic tone this claim carries, however, along with the fabulations in this novel, suggest that we do not always know how to make this distinction. Barnes also quotes Marx, saying that "history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce". History is certainly repeated as farce through the fictitious tales in this novel.
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is a clever, intelligent book, not as accessible or captivating as some make it to be, but one that challenges us to ask big questions, doubt its narrators, and look for the connections that sew together the many "histories" - from biblical to personal - explored in it.
“History isn't what happened, history is just what historians tell us.”
“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.”
“Perhaps love is essential because it's unnecessary.”
“You can deal with the brain, as I say; it looks sensible, whereas the heart, the human heart, I'm afraid, looks a fucking mess.”
"Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.”
“We must be precise with love, its language and its gestures. If it is to save us, we must look at it as clearly as we should learn to look at death.”
"‘I love you.’ Subject, verb, object: the unadorned, impregnable sentence. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. The verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. ‘I love you.’ How serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.”
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