Thursday, 30 December 2010

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

I was very taken with this book when it came out in 1989 and read it a couple of times. It then sat on my bookshelf for a while until it was dug out again for a reading group choice ten years later. Sadly, I didn't feel that it had aged at all well. The exhilarating mish-mash of styles and the ‘big themes’ just seemed more than a little pretentious and the ridiculous ‘Parenthesis’ chapter (the half in the title) didn’t seem to hang the book together at all like it was intended to.


In the spirit of fairness, I decided to have one last go, and while it’s not the masterwork that a teenage 120 Units mistook it for, it’s not the tosh it got dismissed for when I read it last time. Although the book is still very curate’s egg, which is ultimately its undoing, there is some excellent writing in it. My favourite of the ten chapters proper is written in correspondence form: the letters, telegrams and postcards from British actor and former ‘hell-raiser’ Charlie, sent to his girlfriend Pippa back in London while he’s on location in the South American jungle.

Darling – Just time for a card – we leave in half an hour – had our last night on the Johnny Walker now it’s local firewater or nothing – remember what I said on the phone and don’t have it cut too short. Love you – your Circus Strongman.

He’s shooting a film about two Jesuit missionaries who got lost trying to find their way back to the Orinoco River and were nearly drowned in a river accident with the local tribesmen they were trying to convert. The director has teamed him up with an American actor called Matt Smeaton, by all accounts a suitable pairing:

Got stinko paralytico together on our last night in town and ended up doing the Zorba dance in a restaurant! Matt tried plate-smashing but they said it wasn’t the local custom and threw us out! Charged us for the plates, too.

Still, from the moment they get into the jungle, Charlie sees things at a more cosmic level. He envies the Indians their simple life, although he gets a sudden feeling of mortality when he realises that their life expectancy is younger than he is now. As his series of letters continues, he apologises for beastly behaviour towards Pippa and hopes that they can make a new start together, away from London:

Friday. Look, I know you don’t want to talk about it, but I think this spell of being apart will do us lots of good. In lots of ways. Really. I’m getting too old for hellraising anyway. ‘MY HELLRAISING DAYS ARE OVER’ SAYS TV’S ‘BAD-BOY’ CHARLIE.

Just when it looks like Charlie might turn into a decent human being after all, (he still expects Pippa to have his children and look after them on a Yorkshire farm while he’s working though, but one thing at a time) Matt is drowned and Charlie is almost killed too in a repeat of the original accident with the Jesuits 250 years before. The Indians disappear back into the forest. Charlie might need to resort to the bottle again:

Pippa love – When we get out, I’m going to do the following things. Have the biggest fucking Scotch they can pour in Caracas...

Arrival back in Caracas is not helped by the fact that an ex girlfriend is also there. Pippa, indifferent to Charlie’s near death experience hangs up on him when he rings. A couple more rancorous letters follow:

Letter 15, St Lucia, Some bloody day or other. Listen bitch why don’t you just get out of my life GET OUT. You always fucked things up didn’t you that was your one great talent fucking things up. My friends said she’s trouble and the last thing I should have done was let her move in and I was a bloody fool not to believe them. Christ if you think I’m an egotist you should look in the mirror baby. Of course I’m drunk what do you think it’s one way of getting you out of my head. now I’m going to get stinko bloody paralytico. In vino bloody veritas. Charlie “the Hell-Raiser”. P.S. I’m expressing this.

I still contend that this is the strongest of all the stories, allowing the themes to develop within the dialogue, something that some of the others seem incapable of. A mixed appraisal then, for a 21st anniversary re-read. Think I’ll leave it at that...

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