Sunday, February 6, 2011

Review: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

Have you ever read Julian Barnes? One of the greatest living postmodernist authors, he is one of those writers who are able to turn serious matter into hilariously witty - yet real - stories. And check out the title of this one: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. First, a history, because there are official, textbook histories, but then again, there are the private, subjective, personal histories. In 10 1/2 chapters (the half-chapter is a short essay) are Julian Barnes' view of history. Here, it is not the people who shape history - it shapes people. At least according to Julian Barnes.

The book is hard to define. It could just be a novel - after all, there are overarching themes, symbols, story lines and leitmotifs. On the other hand, each chapter could be read exclusively. Not only that, but each chapter is written with a different narrator and in a different style. The first one, for example, takes place on Noah's Arc and is related from a mystery animal (I won't give it away). This animal stays as a leitmotif throughout the book, but is never the narrator again. In fact, the abundance of voices, narrators and styles in the book shape and populate Barnes' history. There is not one voice, but many.

Not all of them worked for me, naturally. While I enjoyed reading about the Noah's Arc (The Stowaway), a brave and possibly delusional woman (dystopian The Survivor), a tourist ship hijacked by terrorists (The Visitors), the role of art in forming history (The Shipwreck) and the plights of a religious zealot going on a ridiculous pilgrimage (The Mountain), I've also found certain parts dull and uninteresting. And that's okay - just like any other history, there are periods and events that spark your interest more than others. Not liking certain chapters is not enough for me to knock off any points from this book. After all, it is not hard to admire Barnes' mastery.

This is literary fiction that is bursting at the seams with imagery, symbols and fabulous thoughts. However, it is also easy and fun to read, as well as highly entertaining and witty. Go read this book ASAP. Otherwise, you're really missing out.



Suzanne said...

I enjoy these type of books every once in a while. Great review! Your highlights sound great, and yes, history can be dull at times and is probably reflected in the parts you didn't particularly care for.

Thanks for sharing!

Jenny Girl said...

This is a book I would never come across on my own. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Great review :)