On first sight, this is not so much a novel as a collection of disparate short stories linked by recurring motifs but not linked by any big idea or common themes. But Julian Barnes has insisted that the book was conceived as a whole, and in actual fact you need to stand quite far back to appreciate the architecture of the whole.
This is a history of the world from Noah until the end of time. In the first chapter we encounter a cynical, all-knowing woodworm which has stowed away on the Ark, decrying Noah and his drunken exploits. In the final chapter, we discover an afterlife in which all desires are satiated to such an extent that the dead eventually tire of the state of bliss that they exist in, and opt for nothingness instead. In the intervening 8 1/2 chapters, we encounter the woodworm gnawing through the legs of the throne of the Bishop of Besançon, trying to eat the letters sent by an actor in the South American jungle and possibly destroying the remains of the Ark on Mount Ararat. Reindeer which on the Ark had a sense of foreboding are buried in the fallout from a nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, the Ark recurs in the guise of an Achille Lauro-type liner stormed by Arab terrorists, who execute the prisoners of the unclean nations two by two, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, some logs tied together in the South American jungle and a possibly delusionary craft in the Pacific.
The overarching theme is similar to that of his recent Booker-prize winning novel A Sense of an Ending. It is the fragility and unreliability of the historical narrative and how it is framed by the perspective of the narrator. The woodworm, who, as a destroyer of narratives par excellence exemplifies Barnes' theme, relates his worm's eye view of a biblical narrative that is unreliable per se. The deaths of the terrorists deprive Franklin Hughes of the justification of his behaviour and his girlfriend never talks to him again. Kath Ferris's journey across the Torres Strait could have been a fantasy or delusion - or the consequence of sunstroke. The story of the Medusa is the story of the survivors.
There are two significant exceptions to these stories about the fragility of history. The first is the tragic story of the ship St Louis, which sailed to the United States carrying 937 Jewish refugees but was denied access at numerous ports in the Americas, finally returning to Antwerp. This is a shocking fact: only the ultimate fate of its passengers as they are dispersed once again throughout Europe is unknown.
And then in the half-chapter, Parenthesis, Barnes finally confronts the reader directly and brings everything together. In the midst of a disquisition on the nature of love, he states that "History isn't what happened - history is just what historians tell us." They impose a pattern, plan, connections.
"The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries then fade; stories, old stories that seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections... We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them."
As short stories, each Chapter would stand up well by itself. Written in a variety of styles, voices and tones, they are exemplars of the short-storyteller's art. Yet don't let the engaging nature of many of these tales and the accessibility of Barnes' style deceive you - this is a deadly serious and hugely ambitious book.