A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

>> Tuesday, March 21, 2006

After reading and loving my first Julian Barnes novel, England, England, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for the intriguingly titled A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters. Of course, I forgot about it about 5 minutes later (which is the main reason why I'm so obsessive about my spreadsheets). I only remembered I wanted it when, while spending the day at the beach, the friend who was with me started reading bits out loud from the book he was reading. These were really hilarious bits, so I checked out the title, and it was none other than this book I remembered wanting to read. Unfortunately, it was in Spanish, but having it right there, I didn't have the patience to wait for a copy in English (plus, the translation wasn't that bad).

Connecting themes of voyage and discovery, History has become one of Barnes's most studied and talked about novels. The mixture of fictional and historical narratives provides Barnes the opportunity to question our ideas of history, our interpretation of facts, and our search for answers to explain our interaction and placement within the grand scope of history.

That "summary" doesn't say much, does it? Well, I can't say I'm surprised, as this is a book that's not easy at all to describe!

Ok, the 101/2 Chapters bit is accurate, and actually, so is the part about it being A History of the World. But we're not talking about a chronological account of important events and the like. Barnes jumps back and forth in time, narrating seemingly irrelevant stories which, nonetheless, give one a very clear picture of the times.

For instance, take my favourite chapter, "The Wars of Religion" (which was the one my friend was originally reading to me from). That entire chapter is basically just the account of a 15th century trial on termites for weakening the wooden legs of a throne, and causing a bishop to fall when he sat on it. Reading the verbatim arguments presented on each side doesn't just show how canonical lawyers might find ways to argue just about anything. I also got a fascinating glimpse into things like the role of religion in regular people's lives or into the everyday hardships faced by the French peasantry.

Most of the chapters were that way: fun in themselves, but also illustrative of a certain period. Some favourites include the one mentioned above; the first one, a mock account of the Deluge and Noah's Ark and the last one, a fanciful description of paradise (both of these were reminiscent of England, England, in the way the fantastical was described in minute, fascinating detail).

Others, as the "Parenthesis", were less effective, but the collection worked beautifully as a whole, as certain themes reappeared in every chapter in different permutations... the termites, Noah's ark, the separation of the pure from the unpure (sorry if this is not the term used in English, I'm translating from memory), the whole thing about the animals going in two by two... and I'm probably missing some :-)

A fascinating book, well worth the read! A B+.


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