The Unmemorable Histories in Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

 

“The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade, stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections” (240).

 

Inventive and utterly clever, Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters functions of the premise that every single important ideology that currently exists in the world stems from what transpired in Noah’s ark during the great flood.  Divided into ten chapters/ stories (until now, I still am unable to decide whether Barne’s work qualifies as a novel, a short story collection or a story-arc), it begins with a new, revised account of Noah’s voyage into the oceanic world that came after God wreaked his wrath into the world he found unworthy. Told from the point-of-view of a stowaway woodworm, an animal previously deemed unworthy, it exposes the malice of Noah’s family and the dozens of tragedies which struck the five ships (yes, according to the wormy narrator, there were five arcs, one commanded by Noah, three managed by his sons, and one that served as a medical and storage unit), which includes the death of the unicorns and the behemoths, largely because of the human’s need for sustenance. The next nine pieces largely deal with the aftermath, without continuing Noah’s story. This includes “The Wars of Religion,” a documented court proceedings regarding the indictment and eventual excommunication of several woodworms who was said to have caused a piece of wood to weaken and fall on a priest, “Shipwreck,” a ekphrastic piece which uses Gericault’s famous painting of the Medusa in an attempt to recreate what had happened on the infamous ship and pursue a discussion on the importance of tragedy and art in culture, “ “Three Simple Stories,” three vignettes which question God’s behavior after the great flood, including a think piece that dwells on the prophet Jonah’s mission and the contradictory nature of his divine quest (as well as the sheer impossibility of surviving inside the belly of a whale), “Project Ararat,” which tells of one woman’s quest to reach Noah’s vineyard and the mountain where Noah docked his arc, the infamous, didactic and ironic half-chapter, “parentheses”, which consists of Barne’s discursive attempt to share his views  on the semantics of love and desire, and “The Dream,” which offers the readers a new and different picture of paradise.  Each tale has a different voice, a different manner in which it is told, and each distances itself from being formal, from being objective, from being devoid of irony. And although each of them attempts to be self-sustaining, to be a work that can stand on its own, there are connective devices, recurring themes, thoughts and fragments that exist, reflecting the odd nature of human history.

Interestingly enough, the ten stories found in Barne’s book strays away from the events that become central to the world, and instead deals with more or less common events which one would not imagine to have much significance on how the world turns, positing that history, the essential aspects of it, is not influenced by the gravity of the change it produces, but by how an individual sees it. Common events that do not simply matter to the grand scheme of things bear in them the repercussions of the smallest action, reaffirming the universality of human emotions and experience, urging us to question our notions on the so-called “objective history” that we have been come to know. At the end of the novel, the readers eventually realize that each experience becomes a historical archive that can be traced back to one source, echoing with it a dozen theoretical ramifications that the critic in me nods in agreement.

 

*Much thanks for Random House for graciously providing me a copy of this wonderful book. And yes, Im back to my usual blogging.

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