A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes’s fifth novel (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989 and shortlisted for Great Britain’s Booker Prize), is a work much easier to describe than to summarize, which is to say that it resists being reduced to less than what it is: a deeply—and by turns also playfully—meditative text. It is multitoned, multistyled, multivoiced, and indeed, multigenred. Neither conventional novel (it is too diverse) nor unified novellike story collection on the order of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), it exemplifies what Gary Saul Morson has termed “threshold literature”—work intended by its author to exist on the boundary between genres, sending its reader ambiguous, even conflicting, signals as to how it is to be read and by what generic rules it is to be classified. Like Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Barnes’s highly acclaimed third novel, this work transgresses boundaries frequently and variously, calling attention to its own radical heterogeneity and its author’s ruminative genius. In subverting genres, Barnes’s novel necessarily subverts the reader’s expectations and, consequently, his or her efforts to know the text, to classify it in order to control it. The defeat of the reader is very much to the point in so far as the novel may be said to be about defeats, failures, and losses, and more especially about those subversive triumphs (including the author’s) that may be achieved against the odds and within the limitations imposed both by literature and by life.
The novel begins, subversively enough, with a decidedly unorthodox account of Noah and the ark narrated (as the reader only gradually discovers) by Anobium domesticum, more familiarly known as the woodworm. The woodworm’s Noah, unlike the Bible’s, is an inflexible and generally incompetent tyrant, blindly obedient to the oppressive God who has saved him for no better reason than Noah’s having been the best of a very bad lot. Along the narrative way, the woodworm narrator revises (down) not only God, Noah, the Bible, and the overly credulous reader made in Noah’s chosen image, but science as well. Charles Darwin, it seems, was wrong. There was no natural selection; there were only Noah’s whims, prejudices, and appetite for animal flesh: his makeshift, arbitrary selection of which species were to be saved, which abandoned, and which eaten. Against Noah’s selfish unconcern and against too the reader’s no less dangerous naivete’ and selective (generally self- serving) memory, the transhistorical woodworm offers itself as trustworthy guide, free of both constraining obligations and mankind’s flattering delusions of grandeur. “We had stowed away, survived and escaped—all without entering into any fishy covenants with God or Noah. We had done it by ourselves.”
For the expectant reader, “The Stowaway” prepares the way for a revisionist and entirely bogus, cheerfully indeterminate narrative not unlike Mel Brooks’s similarly titled film, History of the World, Part 1 (1981), a retelling of familiar stories, chronologically arranged and ironically told. Barnes’s reader soon finds himself thwarted, however, his expectations largely unfulfilled. Indeed, for the reader (quite unlike Brooks’s viewer) to survive at all, he or she must prove as cunning and resourceful as the woodworm—which disappears entirely as narrator. (The woodworm or its descendants will figure in a number of the subsequent chapters and will prove, even when absent, deconstructively present in them all.)
Going from chapter 1 to chapter 2, the reader turns a page and leaps millennia in a single bound, transported from deluge to a more contemporary and dismayingly commonplace disaster. Exit Noah, enter Franklin Hughes, host of a cultural tour of the Mediterranean Sea aboard the aptly named Santa Euphemia. “The Visitors” of the chapter title turn out to be not woodworms but Arab terrorists who kill most of the international group of tourists on the hour, two by two, before being themselves dispatched by an American Special Forces unit. Along the way the suave but superficial, almost loathesome Hughes will be forced to do the terrorists’ bidding, playing the part of their spokesman in order to protect his current sexual partner. His seemingly selfless act is not without a hint of self-interest and certainly not without rather dire consequences for those tourists who will be forced to take her place. As even this brief summary shows, despite the chronological leap, the reader begins to perceive parallels between the first two chapters, paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic in nature: The ark becomes the Santa Euphemia; Noah/God becomes the terrorists; the terrorists are, like the woodworm, hidden; and the woodworm here and in subsequent chapters will undergo a transformation of its own, reversing its syllables to become the metaphysical wormwood that Hughes is forced to drink when he accepts the terrorists’ conditions.
Time, tone, form, and style all again change in chapter 3, “The Wars of Religion”: a transcript (preceded by notes on the source and the translation) of an absurdly argued legal debate that may have been used in the training of jurists in sixteenth century France. The text proves not only farcical but also...
(The entire section is 2225 words.)