I really enjoyed the works of Julian Barnes until A Sense of an Ending when I wondered if the man had anything else to say. It seemed I’d read this theme before only with a different plot. With that in mind- A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was chosen by a group including some dear friends, so I read it.
A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
by Julian Barnes
1989 / 308 pages
rating 8 / late 20th century lit
Barnes is writer with great imagination and a nice clear voice – too bad he only invents new plots to prove his one theme. That theme being you can’t trust anything or anyone – not history, not science, nothing. There is no truth because it’s all subjective, invented, falsified, etc.
In Arthur and George the theme of “Truth” was wound into a plot about heritage and “real” Englishman. In Flaubert’s Parrot it was in trying to figure out which stuffed parrot “really” belonged to Flaubert. In The Sense of an Ending the reader and protagonist were concerned with a letter from a past lover really meant, what did their love back then mean? That’s when I got fed up with Barnes and his one-tune show.
A History of theWorld in 10 1/2 Chapters is more complex – more fun. it’s
This time, in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, we have ten very loosely connected stories and a parenthesis which are not in any kind of order that I could detect except that the first one starts with Noah’s Arc and the last is a sort of satire on heaven.
The Noah story has to do with a variation of the Noah’s Arc narrative and the following story is close to current day with a cruise ship which has been hijacked by terrorists. Next story goes back to the Protestant Reformation, then comes one from some future time – possibly. Etc. I think most are based on historical events but some from very subjective personal (to the characters) points of view, while others are presented as alternative history.
Through all this runs a motif of rain, oceans, unreliable vessels, narrators and artists, writers, etc – not to forget the wormwood (termites). To Barnes, to whom “all is fiction” I guess. But is that statement also fiction? Is he, the presumed character/narrator of the parenthetical half-chapter unreliable? – Imo, a resounding yes! It feels like he’s the divine messenger bringing this idea into our lives as readers in new and impressive ways – that we’re to think “My, isn’t he profound?”
Anyway, what is the definition of fiction – is it the opposite of truth? – What if there is no truth? – oh dear – then even fiction is a fictional idea. And how can you have something like “fiction” without “nonfiction” – or is that even in the same category – is it not simply a librarian/bookseller’s tool? Anyway, believing nothing is true is such a dead end thought-wise – it just cycles around itself – I don’t go there.
But Barnes is fairly clever – the stories are various ways in which no one knows the truth.
Chapter 1, “The Stowaway” is an alternative account of the story of Noah’s Ark from the point of view of the woodworms, who were not allowed onboard and were stowaways during the journey.
Chapter 2, “The Visitors” describes the hijacking of a cruise liner, similar to the 1985 incident of the Achille Lauro.
Chapter 3, “The Wars of Religion” reports a trial against the woodworms in a church, as they have caused the building to become unstable. Woodworms are obviously from the devil and they are threatening the theological/power foundation
Chapter 4, “The Survivor” is set in a world in which the Chernobyl disaster was “the first big accident”. Journalists report that the world is on the brink of nuclear war. The protagonist escapes by boat to avoid the assumed inevitability of a nuclear holocaust. Whether this occurred or is merely a result of the protagonist’s paranoia is left ambiguous.
Chapter 5, “Shipwreck” is an analysis of Géricault‘s painting, The Raft of the Medusa. The first half narrates the historical events of the shipwreck and the survival of the crew members. The second half of the chapter analyses the painting itself. It describes Géricault’s “softening” the impact of reality in order to preserve the aestheticism of the work, or to make the story of what happened more palatable.
Chapter 6, “The Mountain” describes the journey of a religious woman to a monastery where she wants to intercede for her dead father. The Raft of the Medusa plays a role in this story as well.
Chapter 7, “Three Simple Stories” portrays a survivor from the RMS Titanic, the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, and the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis in 1939, who were prevented from landing in the United States and other countries.
Chapter 8, “Upstream!” consists of letters from an actor who travels to a remote jungle for a film project, described as similar to The Mission (1986). His letters grow more philosophical and complicated as he deals with the living situations, the personalities of his costars and the director, and the peculiarities of the indigenous population, coming to a climax when his colleague is drowned in an accident with a raft.
The unnumbered half-chapter, “Parenthesis” is inserted between chapters 8 and 9. It is different in style to the other chapters, which are short stories; here a narrator addresses his readers and offers a philosophical discussion on love. The narrator is called “Julian Barnes”, but, as he states, the reader cannot be sure that the narrator’s opinions are those of the author. A parallel is drawn with El Greco’s painting “Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, in which the artist confronts the viewer. The piece includes a discussion of lines from Philip Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb (“What will survive of us is love”) and from W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 (“We must love one another or die”).
Chapter 9, “Project Ararat” tells the story of a fictional astronaut Spike Tiggler, based on the astronaut James Irwin. Tiggler launches an expedition to recover what remains of Noah’s Ark. There is overlap with chapter 6, “The Mountain.”
Chapter 10, “The Dream” portrays New Heaven.
** Aside: If nothing is reliably and /or objectively true, especially when language and time are involved, it really makes me question how the recipe for blueberry muffins I got from someone who got it from someone else, possibly a grandmother, turned out so good, several times and I’ve used it for company. Oh well – it’s all subjective, right? Merely an accident or coincidence. Whatever – they were great muffins.