The book is basically what it says on the cover: Ten-and-a-half short chapters, which together cover a lot of ground. It is not, as you may be led to believe, a book about history, however.
Rather, it is one of those books that somewhat reminds me of those Official Soundtrack albums they keep releasing: “Music composed for, and inspired by, X”. The stories are, in fact, all fiction. But rather than being history, they cleverly become part of history. Or they will do – for anyone who reads the book. It is also obviously inspired by history, in a way that no other book I have ever read is.
10.5 chapters is a strange book by many accounts. It uses very distinct narrative structures from chapter to chapter, and each chapter can be read as a short story – as it stands very well on itself. The clever bit is how the stories actually intertwine and play off each other.
The first chapter is about Noah’s Ark, seen from the perspective of a creature that managed to sneak on board – a highly blasphemous, but also thought-provoking and profound tale of survival, and the idiocy of religion in general.
Then, in rapid succession, Barnes covers some seriously deep issues. There is a story about a women who loses her mind and sets sail for the open sea, an in-depth analysis of GŽricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa, a story about a group of jews trying to escape Germany just before the second world war, and a most profound philosophical work on the mechanics and philosophy of Love.
Throughout this eclectic mixture of profoundness, Julian Barnes manages to keep his readers on the edge of their chairs: Without getting overly pretentious and without ever getting heavy-handed, he illustrates several points: Proficiency in a handful of distinct styles, different narratives, inspiring and fresh thoughts on a handful of topics, a few giggles (both through content and through the cheekiness inherent in some of the writing styles).
All in all, A History of the world in 10.5 chapters has only one grievous flaw: The fact that it is not the history of the world in 99.5 chapters. I would have loved to read more stories. Follow the author through more explorations, and hear more of his ideas.
The only consolation is that Julian Barnes has written a handful of other novels, all of which have instantly been awarded a one-way ticket to the top of my “to read” list. And if you have any sense – move 10.5 chapters to near the top of yours as well. Trust me, it is worth it.