ENGLAND, ENGLAND, by Julian Barnes

THE whimsicality of the English imagination offers many pitfalls to earnest Celtic sensibilities. What is one to make of its Teutonic sense of humour, its buffoonish sense of tragedy, the solemn response to banality, the frivolous wince at significance? It is so foreign, so flighty, so, in the end, unreliable. When John Major offered us his vision of Tory England - friendly folk watching cricket over a glass of beer - he sounded sincere enough. 

But against the fading memory of his back-stabbing, bribe-taking, alcopopping, positively Neapolitan administration, it suggests an unsuspected but pretty gift for irony. Or take Evelyn Waugh's accolade to PG Wodehouse - the master of English literature. A tremendous tease it was thought, and one that hooked poor Sean O'Faolain, who responded indignantly that the eunuchoid genius was no more than the performing flea of English literature. At which Waugh plonkingly insisted that the tribute had been entirely serious, thereby leaving everyone, including Wodehouse, unsure whether to wipe the smile off their faces or snigger into their sleeves. 

So what is to be made of Julian Barnes' first novel in six years? Its author is intelligent, sophisticated, civilised beyond fault, the nearest thing to a genuine "man of letters" England can presently boast. The style, as always reflecting Barnes' love of French literature, is distanced, amused by the human condition, and interested in exploring an idea at the expense of character. But the story he tells is a farce with a dated plot and a leaning to slapstick that might have come from Tom Sharpe. It begins with a dazzling riff on the unreality of memory, as Martha Cochrane strives to recall the first thing she could really remember. "If a memory wasn't a thing but a memory of a memory of a memory, mirrors set in parallel, then what the brain told you now about what it claimed had happened then would be coloured by what had happened in between. It was like a country remembering its history: the past was never just the past, it was what made the present able to live with itself." 

Martha, alas, is left on the margins of the story. Into the centre comes Sir Jack Pitman, England's richest man, who decides to create an idealised replica of his country on the Isle of Wight. A mixture of theme-park and living history, it has all the Robin Hood, Dr Johnson, and Horse Guards on parade stuff, even the SAS storming the Iranian embassy, but none of the original's buggery, perfidy and snobbery. To ensure these standards of behaviour are maintained, every citizen of his regnum in regno (hence the doubled title) is on Sir Jack's payroll, and liable to dismissal for failure to perform according to script. A substantial transfer fee persuades the king - the story is set at least two royal generations down the line - to swap Buckingham Palace for Osborne House on the island and, buoyed by huge tourist revenues, England seems destined to flourish forever. What threatens to undermine it is the difficulty of distinguishing replica from real, so that eventually, the actor playing Dr Johnson is incapacitated by melancholia and Hood cannot help robbing the rich. 

The intrinsic farce keeps erupting, notably in a battle between Robin Hood's effeminate Merry Men in green tights supported by Maid Marian's band of infinitely tougher dykes and the mincing gymnasts of the replica SAS squad. But where a real farceur, like Sharpe, would have stuffed the episode with absurdity until it spread out over a chapter and the reader ached with laughter, Barnes finishes it off in a scant three pages, and wins a smile. The publishers claim the novel to be "a bitingly funny satire" (there's nothing more fly than a flyleaf) but Barnes is more feline than mordant, and his targets (the arrogance of the rich and the absurdity of the heritage business) get off with barely a scratch. 

His real aim is, I suspect, more serious - to explore the philosophical distinction between the real and the replica or, in this case, its representation in memory or history. Neither is ever reliable, he concludes, only the effort that goes into creating them. Or as Martha puts it: "The seriousness lay in celebrating the original image, getting back there, seeing it, feeling it." 

The end-result defies easy labelling. Suppose that Passport to Pimlico had been filmed by Jean-Luc Godard; that would be close to it. A neo-existentialist comedy then? I think English whimsy. Still, the publishers are going to town on it. They, at least, are being deadly serious. - Aug 27



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Creada: 04/10/2000 Última Actualización: 04/12/2001