I . . . feel that there is a positive value in prescnting world history to the general public. Even if we do not know it, the history of the world is part of our mental furniture.’ (J M Roberts, The Pelican History of the World)
We get scared by history; we allow ourselves to be bullied by dates. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
And then what? Everyone became wiser? People stopped building new ghettoes in which to practise the old persecutions? (Julian Barnes)
The only instructive history of the world is a history of love, the aspirations of love and its failures: ‘those who get their satisfaction from other things,’ Barnes asserts, ‘are living empty lives, are posturing crabs who swagger the sea-bed in borrowed shells.’ But ‘If we are to oppose love to such wily, muscled concepts as power, motley, history and death, then we mustn’t retreat into self-celebration or snobby vagueness. Love’s enemies profit from its unspecific claims, its grand capacity for isolation. So where do we start?’ – The stowaway woodworm on Noah’s Ark is as good a place as any: ‘It may be an ark, but one on which anthropophagy is rife; an ark skippered by some crazy graybeard who beats you round the head with his gopher-wood stave, and might pitch you overboard at arty moment.’
Barnes’ Noah is not the devout patriarch of the Bible, but human and as fallible as his Creator, a feisty unlikeable old pioneer given to authoritarian whims. Jealous of the unicorn, he had it casseroled . . . The history of the world is a history of mankind is a history of accident, chance and mood: random mutation. The woodworm thinks it would have been better altogether if God had chosen the gorilla as his protégé.
In the nine and a half chapters that follow, Barnes comes at the eternal, unanswerable ‘WHY?’ from every direction. The uniqueness of man does not lie in his ability to make tools or even to reason, but in his ability (need?) to turn catastrophe into art, to shape the world into some sense which then becomes amenable to reason. That sense may not be, and usually is not, truth. Most often it is myth, and the myths shape the future. Running parallel to that need, feeding it, and relentlessly in conflict with it, is ‘the prime connection’, the related urge to love and truth: ‘…I can tell you why to love. Because the history of the world, which only stops at the half-house of love to bulldoze it into rubble, is ridiculous without it. The history of the world becomes brutally self-important without love. Our random mutation is essential because it is unnecessary.’
So the Ark becomes a cruise-ship hijacked by terrorists; a small boat on which a woman escapes the reality of her husband’s indifference and the fantasy of the nuclear holocaust with two cats (one is a stray: random mutation). It becomes the Titanic survived by a schoolmaster who stows away on the movie fake-up; it is the whale that swallowed Jonah and a raft of actors recreating a missionary episode in the South American jungle. It is Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. Its remains provide the focus for a Victorian spinster’s search to resolve the conflict of her day, between Science and Religion, and for an astronaut’s determination to prove the existence of God. It is a shipful of Jewish refugees seeking asylum at the beginning of the Second World War. And it is always the vehicle for the human comedy.
A History of the World will make you think as you laugh, and laugh as you think, about free will, love, truth, myth and reality and what it is to be human. You will want to read it again and again, and why not? – there’s nothing around to touch it. At last the English novel seems to have got its balls back.