Archive for September, 2013

HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN TEN AND A HALF CHAPTERS by JULIAN BARNES

HistoryOfTheWorld 

Religion culture art history – all these things are commonly discussed and examined in the books we read here at bookgroup, and we love it. But what does a woodworm or a termite think of Noah, or medieval jurisprudence? Don’t care?
Well Julian Barnes does and this book is super smart, and laugh out loud funny, because he tells these ten and a half history based stories from such bizarre perspectives.
I found his invented transcript of an apparently real court case from 13th century France hilarious. it involves the prosecution of a family of wood worms for allegedly ‘rendering the bishop of Amiens into a state of imbecility’. It is written in perfectly logical barrister-style legalese, and the arguments of the prosecution for excommunication were as compelling as those of the defence. By rotting the leg of the bishops throne were they doing the evil work of the devil, or serving god’s purpose by behaving as god created, and intended, them to?
This retelling of medieval Europe was completely ridiculous and completely  believable, as  were the other 9 and a half other bizarre point of view chapters. He does biblical criticism by telling the story of Noah’s ark from a woodworm’s perspective. He does colonisation and finding the new world from the point of view of a 1970s english actor writing back to his lover from the Amazon jungle, while shooting a movie recreating first contact between the church and a lost tribe. He does nuclear apocalypse as a woman so certain destruction is coming, and so annoyed at others lack of anxiety, that she sails away from civilisation and becomes lost and delirious for some weeks post rescue.
All these were perfectly done: the writing fast; characters convincing; the scholarship on history, politics and religion acute; and all of it very funny. I guess the only criticism might be the obscurity of the connections between stories, and whether Barnes fails, or even wants, to make an overall point. However for many readers this will be a strength not a weakness. His point, if there is one, is about complexity, humanity, and enduring chaos.
Thankfully he makes this point in a confident irreverent matter of fact way, not in some jargonistic relativistic post modern way. That is, he is tough on many of his subjects: the church; the actor; the neurotic woman sailor of the future; and even nature. He doesn’t just say if it makes sense to you it makes sense. Neither does he impose a reading of history on his history of the world – excuse me for hypocritically borrowing some post-modern  jargon.
In the end what he gives us is a funny, smart, and imaginative reflection on the stories we tell ourselves about our past, and our future.
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September 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm Leave a comment


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