Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Napoleon of Notting Hill - G K Chesterton

This was written (1904) in the ‘good old days’ when it was easier for an author to write a wide range of books without their editors, book shops, critics, or the reading public getting their undergarments knotted or going into ecstasies about ‘genre busting’ work.

Chesterton sets his work in the future, but this is not a work of science fiction. It is a device by which the story can be told most effectively. Chesterton’s future is unchanged from the world of 1904 – horse drawn cabs, top hats, astonishing complacency amongst the upper and merchant classes. By creating a familiar setting, the impact of the underlying themes of the work is heightened.

On the surface it is a frivolous and humorous tale of a future king (chosen at random by lottery) who, for a joke, draws up a charter that divides London into self-contained city states. Most people take it for the annoying joke that it is, but the Provost of Notting Hill takes it seriously. When the Provosts of other boroughs propose putting part of a road through Notting Hill (and demolishing a row of houses in the process) civil war breaks out.

Chesterton allows the book to darken. Barricades go up. Blood is spilled. People die. Urban warfare is described with chilling accuracy. The insanity of war is laid bare. And a decade after publication, there was not one person left in Europe who did not understand what that meant.

Within the tale, we find an examination of patriotism and of the horrors of a society divided against itself. It is also an examination of what happens when individuals are at war with themselves, unable to integrate seemingly disparate natures.

Chesterton manages all this in a well structured and well paced tale. The mood, as already noted, begins on a light note, becomes increasingly darker, and ends in the pitch dark after a finale that is quite breathtaking. Yet in all the darkness there is hope and there is rebirth.

It is a book to enjoy. It is a book to make you think. What more could you ask?