(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Julian Barnes is a novelist of such intelligence, subtlety, and wit that any offering from him is likely to prove not only a pleasurable read but a teasing source of philosophical reflection as well. England, England, his eighth novel, does not disappoint. It is at once a playful assault on the modern ills of crass commercialization, a postmodern riff on the impossibility of locating an absolute origin of anything, and a serious inquiry into the possibility of self-knowledge and authentic existence.

The England, England of the title refers not to the England on the map, but to a half-size replica of everything England is famous for in the popular mind—Buckingham Palace, Robin Hood, the Houses of Parliament, the White Cliffs of Dover, cricket, and the like—on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the southern coast of England. England, England quickly becomes more popular as a tourist haven than England proper.

In this mini-England, tourists get “England” delivered in convenient doses that neither challenge their received view of English institutions and history nor involve them in a lot of time-consuming travel. They can see it all on an island of only 155 square miles.

England, England is the brainchild of Sir Jack Pitman, a man whose mind, at least in his own opinion, is of gargantuan proportions, a man whose energy, power, and drive to get things accomplished dwarf those of lesser men. Sir Jack has an intolerably high opinion of himself and expresses it in laughably grandiose terms. In his lair at Pitman House, chiseled in Cornish slate, he has placed a tribute to himself, loosely based on a London Times article that has been subjected to the attentions of one of Sir Jack’s well-paid rewrite men. Prominently displayed for visitors to see, it reads in part,

. . . Entrepreneur, innovator, ideas man, arts patron, inner-city revitalizer. Less a captain of industry than a very admiral, Sir Jack is a man who walks with presidents yet is never afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. He suffers neither fools nor busybodies. Yet his compassion runs deep.

Sir Jack, understandably, is a controversial figure in English society and politics. Some regard him with awe as a “mover and shaker” of the first order; others see him as an unscrupulous bully who will ride roughshod over anyone just to gratify his own ego.

Now in his sixties, Sir Jack is searching for one final, great project that will leave his mark long after he is gone. He conceives the idea for England, England when a high-powered consultant points out to him that England may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but it can turn this to its advantage by clever marketing of its own history.

This confirms Sir Jack’s line of thought. A coordinating committee is set up and receives appropriate validation from a French intellectual who explains that in modern society, people prefer replicas to originals. The compact disc is preferred to the live symphony orchestra, for example, and visitors to the Bayeux Tapestry spend more time looking at the replica than the original. People feel safer, more comfortable when faced with a replica; unlike the original, it does not challenge them or fill them with awe or fear. This quintessentially modern development, according to the smooth-talking Frenchman, is not something to be regretted. On the contrary, the representation enhances and enriches the world because it is something people can possess and shape: It becomes more real than the original.

Questions about what aspects of England should be represented in the project are settled by surveys and market research that reveal what people around the world associate with the word “England”—surveys that also reveal the staggering ignorance of most English people (especially the ones who call themselves well informed) when it comes to their own history.

Matters of authenticity are occasionally raised as the project moves into the planning stage: Should Robin Hood have some Merrie Women in his band as well as Merrie Men? Should Nell Gwynn, who became King Charles’s mistress as an underage child, be represented as older? The project’s “Official Historian,” the effeminate, pompous Dr. Max, taking up the postmodern theme struck by the French intellectual, points out that the notion of authenticity is bogus. He indulges in a hilarious deconstruction of “what everyone knows” about Robin Hood, and also points out that one can never locate a point of origin for anything. Everything we examine, whether present or past, is in fact a copy of something else, or derived from something else. “There is no prime moment,” he says, no such thing as “the way things really were,” which is why as a historian he has no objection to the building of a “replica” of England.

This idea is the...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)