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I recently finished "The History of the World in 101/2 Chapters" by Julian Barnes. Having acquired the said text, I plodded through exactly 10 and a half chapters of prose which sadly fell short of my expectations, given the brilliance of the first chapter.
The main thread connecting all (or rather, most) of the chapters is the legend of Noah's Ark. This common thread becomes increasingly tenuous and occasionally disappears only to re-surface a few chapters later, very much like an ark bobbing up and down on a stormy sea. Although I struggled to connect the various pieces of the puzzle Mr.Barnes laid out in his book for the reader to solve, I believe a reader in better touch with the various references the author makes, may not find it so. Having said that, the last chapter took me so completely by surprise, it almost ambushed me. Look out for it.
But if you are expecting a comprehensive discourse on the long and complicated history of the world, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that it has nothing to do with anything you’d find in your history books. Instead, the first chapter catapults the reader into Biblical times and the refreshing narrative of a stowaway on board Noah’s Ark. As God washes away Earth, Noah washes down half the bestial population of the Ark with wine, ridding us of much of the faunal wealth that once existed. This radically controversial view of Noah as an alcoholic is only one of the examples of Barnes’ quirky style of storytelling. Barnes’ twisted sense of humour is evident in all the chapters as he takes us through – what according to him – are the defining events in the history of the world. Although half of them are fictional accounts it is easy to imagine what the author is trying to say.
The only thing that lets us down is the total lack of characterization. There is no one character that pulls us through the entire book. In each chapter, the author has a completely different protagonist essaying the role of narrator, which makes it all the more difficult for us to pay attention. It is amply transparent to the reader that Julian Barnes is a skilled weaver of tales and a precise reporter of events that have occurred. But the absence of a central character to link his tales into a captivating whole is finally the undoing of this book. But most of the chapters, like the account of a film shooting (chapter 8), the modern-day tale of a cruise hijacking (chapter 2) and the court-trial of a family of woodworms (chapter 3) are interesting in their own right. The last chapter gives the reader a glimpse into Heaven as imagined by the author and is genuinely funny and thought-provoking and stands a few rungs higher than the rest of the chapters.
To sum up, this is a book I've only dreamed of: It's got a perfect beginning and a perfect end. If not for the chapters in between, this would have been a magical read.
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