A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

I acquired A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes thirty years ago as a birthday gift from a university friend, Christine Smereczynsky, in 1991. It has taken me thirty years to read it. The title was what attracted me to the book although I had no idea what it was about. I did know that it was fiction and not a history text. What started out with an alternative history of the Noah’s Ark and Great Flood story did not continue with fabulous reinterpretations of other world events, and limited to 10½ of them, of course. Instead Barnes wrote ten self-contained chapters that made the book more like a collection of short stories. They are related by sometimes dealing with epic events like the Great Flood and the moon landing, but are tied together by two stronger recurring themes: Noah’s Ark and woodworm, of all things. It would spoil the stories to divulge how woodworms bore their way into the plots but imagine if they found themselves on the Ark…which was made out of gopherwood.

That story occupied the first chapter and proved to be the most quotable. I had many a chuckle as I read it. The animals wondered about their fate on board and why there were some species in pairs and others in multiples. They soon figured it out:

“As far as Noah and his family were concerned, we were just a floating cafeteria.”

while the comic stand-up line continues:

“They’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them. And some of them, like the turkey, have to endure the further indignity of having the stuffing put back into them–before they are braised or boiled.”

Barnes captured the gasping atmosphere aboard the ark from the book’s opening lines. I liked how he compared the noxious miasmas to flames:

“They put the behemoths in the hold along with the rhinos, the hippos and the elephants. It was a sensible decision to use them as ballast; but you can imagine the stench. And there was no-one to muck out. The men were overburdened with the feeding rota, and their women, who beneath those leaping fire-tongues of scent no doubt reeked as badly as we did, were far too delicate.”

I didn’t care for some of the stories, yet the two about Ark expeditions, the shipwreck, and the epistolary chapter about an actor’s adventures making a movie in South America proved to be page-turners. I was often left wondering what the stories had to do with the book’s title. The final chapter on dreams and Heaven did not thrill me–in fact it dragged on, so there’s your half chapter if you like.

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