A History of the World
An old adage of writing says, “Figure out exactly what you want to say, and then do everything you can not to say it.” Julian Barns is a master of this. Chapter 2 of A History, like that in Flaubert’s Parrot, captures the essence of that adage by creating an enlightening parallel to a proceeding account of a story, which draws both accounts into question. Chapter 2 of A History does to its preceding chapter what the epilogue of Life of Pie did to the rest of that book, showing a modern, human incantation of a classic animal allegory. However, where Yan Martel ended by saying what she meant, Barns still holds back, making the reader think about what the alteration of his allegory means, and raising a series of questions. Placing the stories next to each other makes the reader think about the brutality of religion throughout history by paralleling the God of the Old Testament with a terrorist, about the simplicity of pawns like Moses and Franklin, and about the animalistic inability of the voyagers upon these cruises. Based on Barns’s retelling of these two stories, we see both Moses and Franklin forced to choose between an act of altruism that will be seen as selfishness, or an act of selfishness that will be seen as altruism, and we realize it will never be clear which path they chose; and we see that God and the terrorists state the same motivations: “Because of their reckless disregard for human life, it is necessary for sacrifices to be made,” which of course applies to anyone who would make that statement, as well.
That is the power of Julian Barnes, to draw parallels without stating them, causing the reader to ask themselves the questions implied, then dealing with them throughout the rest of the book without ever proposing them, so that the readers’ feel they are on their own quest throughout his winding works. But, like the Old Testament God, though his hand is invisible, it is ever-present in his work. The question this book explores, as offered up in those first two chapters, is how does the way we order the world (religion, history, art, life, love) affect us? And though he seems to only touch on this theme in each story, he is actually answering it all the while with his creation.
The first attempt at order we see acted out in the book is that of law, in chapter three, where man is trying to right the seeming disorder of God’s allowing the woodworms into his holy temples. Every word in this chapter does double duty as it historically vilifies a belief in the sentience of woodworms by its very arguments, which is needed to accept chapter one, while trying to refute much of the claims the woodworms made in that chapter. When the argument is stated, already proven true in the book, that the woodworm may have lived in the wood before the joiner planked it, it is Bartholomew who says, “Far from the woodworm infesting what man has constructed, it is man who has willfully destroyed the woodworms’ habitation, and taken it for his own purpose,” which is clearly the argument of the first chapter: that we screwed up the order of things.
Then chapter 4 turns that on its head and asks if the tail of the ark was all a delusion, a fabulation of what actually happened, a few true facts kept with a new story spun round them, inspired by severe stress in the private life coupled with political crisis in the world outside, the condition of both Moses, and the nuclear-holocaust crazed narrator, who asks of the current disastrous state of the world – of the poisoned reindeer having stripes painted down their backs – “Which famous man will claim credit for that?” The reader does what he musts, and asks the first three chapters: was it God? Moses? Man’s Law? Who do we blame for these disasters? The next chapter, of course, answers, saying, in its examination of “The raft of the medusa,” that art can deal with the disasters, and thus deals with history better than religion did, which glossed over the horrible side of Noah’s ark as illuminated by the parallel of chapter two, and better than history, because history inevitably forgives and forgets the catastrophes rather than creating from them. But even art fades, as the chapter ends with the painting used to propose this theory deteriorating. And even in this painting, even through art, the sins of the past are not justified or vindicated: when we look at the painting we do not damn the officers involved, just as we do not damn Noah: because art was created from his story. Does art make us forget?
The next chapter surely offers us an alternate view, when Ms. Ferguson climbs Mt. Ararat in search of the ark. Throughout her tail, she manages to spin everything the way of the bible and history, but instead of that causing us to forget the sins of the past, it causes us to remember. In the three story’s surrounding the tale of Jonah, we see that subtle myths reproduce, “and so the myth of Bartly (a man who survived being swallowed by a whale in 1902) will be believed, begotten by the myth of Jonah (a man swallowed by a whale in time immemorial).” Which we see play out in the second to last chapter of A History, when Ms. Ferguson’s bones are found in the cave of Mount Ararat,
so that the story that inspired her inspires others.
This brings us to the Parenthesis, the half chapter, where, in the vein of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, the author steps away from the narrative and addresses the reader as himself, about his own text. In the chaos of philosophical questions arising in the collaged narratives, an interesting parallel of the way the bible is narrated, a single voice steps forward proclaiming love over all, like the voice of another text that sticks out in its cannon and pronounces the same thing, the song of songs. Like in that section of the bible, in this section of the history of the world, it is asserted that all is vanity, that trying to understand the chaos of the world, and being too obsessed with trying to order it, to gain knowledge of it, is menial when you can roll over and kiss the nape of your lovers neck. But, like in the current history of the world, that is not the case in the book baring that name, stories and scramblings predate it and proceed after it, and they proceed in the same way as they did before, and that is why it is, sadly, only a parentheses.
What follows is more zealousness, first with another link in the chain following the story of the ark, following the story of Ms. Ferguson, as we (purposefully written in the second person) follow the story of Spike Tiggler, and the myth’s perpetuate themselves, ever drawing up the same philosophical questions about the way we order things. So what does the book say about the way we order things? If you ignore the title of the chapter proclaiming love as the truest order to our lives, you could conclude that that is the order it supports, but unfortunately the wife that Barn’s rolls over and kisses is absent in his democratic, consumerist heaven, or revelation.
In this account of the end days, things end, for each individual, however that individual chose to order things. This seems pleasant, leaving no room for judgments, religious, historical, artistic, or otherwise, as we see by the remarks of the caddie, and the presence of Hitler. But this satisfies no one, because they cannot control other people’s destinies. How can Hitler end up just like them?
In this book that explores the question of which way of ordering things works best, we find that no single way of ordering things can account for everything, that any attempt to represent reality can only produce selective perspectives, and thus this form of the novel, of this form of ordering things, with its many points of view, voices, and tones, makes sense. Again, Barnes has masterfully worked in the self-reflective elements of the post-modernist novel while achieving the pure act of creation inherent in novel writing. “You must choose your material according to the purpose for which it is intended,” he states in chapter one, a self-reflective comment that could be overlooked as it was referring to gofer wood. But the voice that says “Every novelists knows they must proceed by indirection” in his parenthesis, has charted out the path of this novel carefully, from that first chapter to the end, and, while masterfully changing his style within each voice, he holds true to the note he struck clearly in chapter one: the note of subversion.