A History of the World in a Postmodern Novel

Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a great book, just so you know.

I apologize for having two reviews in the same week. It wasn’t intentional, that’s just how these things go sometimes. (The other one is here, in case you missed it.)

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a postmodern novel, which might make it sound inaccessible, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s eminently readable. Barnes doesn’t try to impress with the breadth of his vocabulary, but through complexities in theme and structure. While ostensibly a novel, a single narrative throughline isn’t followed from cover to cover. Instead, what is presented are a handful of stories that are linked together through certain elements.

To give you an idea of what kind of book it is, the opening chapter is a retelling of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, from the point-of-view of some stowaways who weren’t supposed to be saved. Another chapter is related in a series of letters from a movie star to his girlfriend back home, as he is filming on location in a remote jungle. Yet a different chapter offers a chronology of a historical shipwreck, then an analysis of a famous painting based upon it.

The chapters present different stories, and are even done in different styles. The most radical is “Parenthesis,” which is the half-chapter mentioned in the title. Rather than relating a narrative story, “Parenthesis” is a meditation on the meaning and purpose of love. It is sentimental–too sentimental, in fact, and bearing in mind that this is a postmodern novel, one shouldn’t take for granted that the author is relating his true feelings here, or that the intended meaning of the text is plainly spelled out. Indeed, “Shipwreck”‘s examination of the painting The Raft of the Medusa points out how an artist chooses what details to present, not present, and in what fashion, as tools to control the audience’s perception of the work. Given that many of the other stories range from farcical to tragic, “Parenthesis” appears to offer a reprieve, lavishing us with the virtues of love. This is more likely present to offer a false sense of security: love is just as pointless and foolish as everything else here.

Narrative window-dressing links the stories together: references to Noah and his Ark appear in almost every story; a character in one story turns up as a corpse in another; ships, bodies of water, and mountain journeys appear as repeated motifs; the tales often involve protagonists on hopeless or doomed quests. These details offer a coherence and structure to a series of otherwise unrelated stories. Even so, their employment is likely cynical, done in such a hamfisted manner that you have no choice but to notice them. Barnes is toying with us, teasing us with the prospect of a hidden meaning, and all but spelling it out with “Parenthesis.”

The book titles itself a history, but even in the text, Barnes warns us that all documented history must be “a charming, impossible fake.” Indeed, these stories–while many are based on events that really occurred, and people who really existed–are charming, impossible fakes in their own right. They entertain and stimulate, and to some extent even inform, but they fail to bring us closer to any kind of objective, concrete truth about human history. The impossibility of objective truth is, of course, a key concept in postmodernism, and it’s one which Barnes employs here, over and over. From chapter to chapter, humans come into conflict over differing viewpoints, or suffer misunderstandings bred of communication errors. Here, again, we can see how this relates to the telling of human history: the past is always viewed through the lens of the present, and when the dead speak to us from the past, we can only hear them in our own voices. No narrative survives intact its encounter with the mind of another. What does survive, perhaps most aptly, are patterns. Whatever else one may disagree on, human history is rife with journeys, with misunderstandings, with religious and temporal crises, with love and loss, with righteous and reckless behavior, with humans at the mercy of nature, and with confusion–always so much confusion. History indeed rhymes, if only because our human brains, shaped by eons of evolution, have made us adept at spotting patterns.

Barnes does not attempt to offer us truth, but a puzzle whose pieces fit together into an illusion of truth–and it’s an illusion that’s all too easy to accept thanks to Barnes’ artful prose.

The writing styles on display are a big part of what make this novel so engaging. The stories could easily be plodding and depressing. They could suck the life right out of the reader, given their often grim subject matter. Instead, they are presented with wit and irony and humor. The absurdity of many of the situations described is uproarious, and yet the author’s careful crafting of each scenario never quite defies suspension of disbelief. These histories are absurd because human history is absurd. The doomed voyage of the St. Louis, which bounced from country to country in an effort to find refuge for hundreds of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution as the Holocaust was ramping up, is so perfectly tragic that one would imagine it sprang from the mind of a clever novelist. Instead, it is reality. Barnes describes these historical events alongside fictional ones, and who are we to say that one is more value, more true, than the other? Certainly, the fictions are no less plausible than the tales based on known historical events. What sells them is the narrative, and it is in this way that Barnes offers a sharp critique of traditional historical methods. Virtually any version of history can be perceived as credible so long as it ties comfortably into what we already know, and is presented artfully enough that we can be bamboozled by the skill of the storyteller. This is a lesson more relevant than ever today, in an age when slick graphics, rapid-fire bullet points, and emotional pleas are used to influence our perception of the world, the things happening within it, and how we respond to them.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters doesn’t pretend it’s a real history book, and yet it offers thought-provoking insights into how we approach history ourselves. At the same time, it’s damned entertaining, while remaining thoroughly accessible to all readers who will give it a chance. It is easily one of my favorite books I’ve ever encountered.

A Worm’s Eye View of History was used as a resource for this article and is an excellent piece of analysis in its own right.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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A History of the World in a Postmodern Novel

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