One more book from my TBR shelves. And what a book. When I finally took it in my hand, I realised I have read another book by this famous writer, Arthur and George, which I remember liking. I also have A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. The reason I left it there (I actually think I got it from a friend, thank you Lena) was because I mixed up Barnes with another writher, which book I did not like. Can't remember either the writer or the title, which might be as well.
The first part of the book is about Tony Webster and his friends during their studying days. They were three, but was extended to a group of four when Adrian Finn arrived at school. Adrian is different from the other boys, more serious and more intelligent. They all swore to be friends for life. However, life does not always turn out as we want it to.
It is also a book about history, how it is interpreted, and when does something become history. What is true and what is not. The following exchange shows that not even recent history is necessarily clear cut (sorry for the long extract, but I find it very interesting). When the teacher asks; "What is history?", Adrian Finn answers:
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.
'Is it indeed? Where did you find that?'
'Lagrange, sir. Patrick Lagrange. He's French.'
'So one might have guessed. Would you care to give us an example?'
'Robson's suicide, sir'
There was a perceptible intake of breath....
...'What has that to do with the matter?'
'It's a historical event, sir, if a minor one. But recent. So it ought to be easily understood as history. We know that he's dead, we know that he had a girlfriend, we know that she's pregnant - or was. What else do we have? A single piece of documentation, a suicide note reading "Sorry Mum" - at least according to Brown. Does that note still exist? Was it destroyed? Did Robson have any other motives or reasons beyond the obvious ones? What was his state of mind? Can we be sure the child was his? We can't know, sir, not even this soon afterwards. So how might anyone write Robson's story in fifty years' time, when his parents are dead and his girlfriend has disappeared and doesn't want to remember him anyway? You see the problem, sir?'
After a while, the master replied.
'I see the problem, Finn. But I think you underestimate history. And for that matter historians. Let us assume for the sake of argument that poor Robson were to prove of historical interest. Historians have always been faced with the lack of direct evidence for things. That's what they're used to. And don't forget that in the present case there would have been an inquest, and therefore a coroner's report. Robson may well have kept a diary, or written letters, made phone calls whose contents are remembered. His parents would have replied to the letters of condolence they received. And fifty years from now, given the current life expectancy, quite a few of his schoolfellows would still be available for interview. The problem might be less daunting than you imagine.'
'But nothing can make up for the absence of Robson's testimony, sir'
'In one way, no. But equally, historians need to treat a participant's own explanation of events with a certain scepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect.'
'If you say so, sir.'
'And mental states may often be inferred from actions. The tyrant rarely sends a handwritten note requesting the elimination of an enemy.'
'If you say so, sir.'
'Well, I do'
Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.
In the second part of the book we meet Tony as retired. One day he receives a surprising letter from a lawyer, telling him that the mother of a former girl friend has died and in her will dedicated 500 pounds and a diary to him. This makes a him look back at events of his early life. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but sometimes we do or say things when we are young, without thinking of the consequences. Most of the time there will not be any consequences, but sometimes...
"I still read a lot of history, and of course I've followed all the official history that's happened in my own lifetime - the fall of Communism, Mrs Thatcher, 9/11, global warming - with the normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I've never felt the same about it - I've never quite trusted it - as I do events in Greece and Rome, or the British Empire, or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that's been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it's that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it's the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn't it? But it we can't understand time, can't grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history - even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"
I don't want to reveal anything more, because this books leads you in different directions, and just when you think you know what happened, it leads you down another alley. It is a fantastic book. "Masterpiece", the Daily Telegraph called it, and I can only agree. It is a poignant portrait of a group of people, connected through their student days. Small, maybe at the time, unimportant events, take their lives in another direction. Written in a beautiful prose, Julian Barnes has given us a story which is something out of the extraordinary. A must read.