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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An absurd novel with a serious message, 25 Dec. 2010
This review is from: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (Paperback)
"The Napoleon of Notting Hill" is probably the most absurd novel I've ever read. The author, G K Chesterton, was a colorful, verbose and highly eclectic British intellectual. He supported the Boer and the Irish, opposed the suffragettes, and collaborated with Guild Socialists, only to become entangled with the notorious Catholic fundamentalist Hilaire Belloc. I honestly admit that I don't quite understand the man!

Still, there seem to be some unifying themes in Chesterton's voluminous writings. The most obvious is traditional Christianity, first in the form of Anglicanism, later as Catholicism. The reader shouldn't be surprised if some of the characters in his novels turn out to be angels, the Devil, or God himself. Second is a kind of populism. Chesterton emphasizes common sense, the opinions of the common man, the everyday life of the common people, etc. As one of the characters in "The Napoleon of Notting Hill" puts it: "The human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god". In his economic writings, he idealizes the peasantry. In other contexts, Chesterton says that life in the city is intrinsically interesting, and calls on realist writers to relate to it. Finally, there is a search for authenticity, as opposed to the artificial greyness of modernity and the tyranny of the Zeitgeist. Somehow, Chesterton believed that this authenticity could be found among ordinary people, hence making a connection to his populism.

All three themes are present in "The Napoleon of Notting Hill", published in 1904 and one of Chesterton's earliest novels. Both the setting and the plot are completely absurd, although the absurdity is revealed to have a point at the very end of the story. The setting is a futuristic Britain. The nation is a dictatorship, but nobody seems to care. Free speech is outlawed, but nobody notices, since nobody has anything important to say anyway! The standard of living is quite high, and the police have been abolished, since there is no crime. The king or dictator is choosen at random by lot. The whole world has been globalized, except Nicaragua. In other words, this society of the future is a parody of the greyness, dullness, lethargy and creeping statism Chesterton saw (or think he saw) in Britain during his own lifetime.

The plot revolves around two characters, king Auberon Quin and the seeming lunatic Adam Wayne. Upon his unexpected ascension to the throne, Auberon decides to resurrect the traditions of the Middle Ages as a sick joke for his own higher amusement. He divides London into independent boroughs, forces the mayors (or provosts) to wear ridiculous medieval attire, orders them to create mock armies, and so on. Unfortunately for the king, one person takes the whole thing seriously: Adam Wayne, the Lord High Provost of Notting Hill, the smallest and least significant borough in London. Before long, Wayne starts an absurd war with the other boroughs, and eventually succeeds in establishing "the empire of Notting Hill". Throughout the novel, we are lead to believe that Wayne is raving mad, and his actions certainly seem to parody nationalism and local patriotism. Only at the end is it revealed that Wayne is actually "the good guy", perhaps even an angel from Heaven. Both Quin and Wayne are overthrown by the people, but they join fortunes and wander off together.

The message of the novel is that nationalism and localism, which looks absurd to modern eyes, aren't artificial but real, more real than the dull greyness of the modern. Local patriotism is authentic, is part of what humanity is really all about. Chesterton was a "Little England nationalist" and called for extensive decentralization.

Another point raised by the novel concerns the relationship between humour and seriousness. The futuristic society described by Chesterton is frankly boring, but when Auberon attempts to protest this state of affairs, he can do little else than frivolity. Indeed, our "postmodern condition" is characterized both by conventional, mass boredom and frivolous mass entertainment. The two things aren't antipodes, but twins. This is Auberon's problem in the novel. Wayne's problem is seemingly the opposite: he takes even the absurd deadly seriously, and hence turns into a cultish fanatic. In the end, however, it turns out that Wayne knows the solution to the problem: humans need to be both humorous and serious, and there is no contradiction between authentic laughter and authentic seriousness. It may sound like a bland message, until you start watching TV!

However, Chesterton's novel also contains a cautionary note: "When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist".

Is the world ripe for a real Adam Wayne?
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