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|The Napoleon of Notting Hill|
by G.K. Chesterton
Published in 1904
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Recommended by: Ross Pavlac
A Utopian novel showing the logical results of increased nationalism.
This work has also been on my "to be read" list for some time, again because it was supposed to contain religious elements. There is some mention of God, but no more than one would expect to occur naturally in a turn-of-the century work. Published in 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill was Chesterton's first novel. The action (coincidentally enough) begins in 1984, when Western civilisation has swallowed up the last independent nations, and the world is governed by large blocs. In Britain, the monarchy has been retained, but the King is chosen by lot from a list of the eligible members of the upper class. Life has become so safe, predictable and boring that when Auberon Quin is selected to be King, he decides to devote his reign to making life more fun and interesting. As a joke, he institutes ridiculous rituals and clothing for the rulers of the London boroughs, in memory of imaginary battles between them. Unfortunately, one of these rulers, Adam Wayne, takes the charade seriously, and plunges London into war for the glory of Notting Hill.
I was not prepared for just how incredibly funny this book is. The silliness starts when the appointment of the new King is announced:
"No sir," said the officer, with a slight cough and a glance towards Auberon, who was at that moment putting his head between his legs and making a noise like a cow. "The gentleman whom we have to congratulate seems at the moment er er occupied."
"Not Quin!" Shrieked Barker, rushing up to him; "it can't be. Auberon, for God's sake pull yourself together. You've been made King!"
With his head still upside down between his legs, Mr Quin answered modestly
"I am not worthy. I cannot reasonably claim to equal the great men who have previously swayed the sceptre of Britain. Perhaps the only peculiarity I can claim is that I am probably the first monarch that ever spoke out his soul to the people of England with his head and body in this position." (p. 23)
Further on, we get such understated silliness as:
The Lord High Provost of North Kensington... wrote a curt business note... stating that definite inconvenience has been caused him by the presence of the halberdiers, whom he had to take with him everywhere. When attempting to catch an omnibus to the City, he had found that while room could have been found for himself, the halberdiers had a difficulty getting into the vehicle. (p. 35)
There is no mention of great strides in technology, such as flying cars or ray guns or rocket ships to the stars, as is more common in science fiction. Instead this work belongs to a subgenre which I call "sociological science fiction" that is to say, it explores the possible outcome of an existing societal condition. Sociological SF explores ideas which begin with the statement, "If things keep going on like this..." In this case, Chesterton's weird and wacky tale has some disturbing truth to it. For all our desperate running around in search of entertainment, we spend a good deal of time working very hard to make the world as safe and boring a place as possible. Of course, even Chesterton can't make war funny, and the last half of the book is darker in tone, and even gets mythic at the end. Wayne, who is incapable of treating anything as a joke, is a sort of mirror image of Quin, who treats nothing seriously. The two of them go striding off into the sunset together.
This little cautionary tale is not as well known as Chesterton's Father Brown stories. Where the humour in Father Brown is gentle and understated, here it is "over the top." In fact, having read it, I would expect this to be the sort of material that the Monty Python gang would relish tackling. Greg Slade
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