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"Bloody golden eggs again!"

England, England
by Julian Barnes
London: Jonathan Cape, 1998

"That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."
-- Richard II, II.i.40

"It's not a state-of-Britain novel. It's to do where Britain is in the longer spread of history. At least, that's what I think its going to be about." -- Julian Barnes in a 1995 interview discussing his plans for his latest novel.

In Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes writes that seizing the past is like attempting to grasp hold of a greased piglet. If so, then seizing a nation's past must be like trying to tackle an oiled hippopotamus. If you do manage to put a hand on the behemoth, you may find Sir Jack Pitman sitting on its back. Sir Jack is an eccentric tycoon in Julian Barnes's new novel England England, and he is also the enterprising force behind the construction of the "Project," a theme park on the Isle of Wight which strives to contain all things "English." Replicas of major tourist spots are concentrated in one convenient location on "The Island," as it is soon known, creating a "sort of fast-forward version of England: one minute it was Big Ben, the next Anne Hathaway's cottage, then the White Cliffs of Dover, Wembley Stadium, Stonehenge, [the king's] Palace, and Sherwood Forest" (164). As the Project's growing success produces the steady decline of "Old England," Sir Jack Pitman renames it England, England (179).

England England is covered with Barnes's ironic, questioning fingerprints. Set in an undated future, the Island recreates British history and culture based on surveys and consumer polls, sometimes constructing history from mere myth in order to attract the public. The tycoon owner of family newspapers is caught in an unspeakable act reminiscent of a good Dan Kavanagh novel. Actors mistake fiction for reality as they begin to believe they are the historical characters they play. The Royal Family, exhausted by scandal, moves to the Island's replica of Buckingham Palace with promises of tax-exemption, no paparazzi, and a light work schedule further reduced by the hiring of look-alike actors to wave from the Palace windows. The success of this ironic, pseudo-England drains Old England of tourism and economic health, leaving behind a quasi-idyllic country renamed "Anglia."

"The longer spread of history" represented on the island of England, England is really just a collection of historical highlights, of false and true memories, of scenes or incidents which, when placed together, give off the impression of the nation's past. This view of history is found in much of Barnes's work. In Staring at the Sun, Jean Serjeant views her memories as a "series of magic lantern slides," encapsulated "Incidents" within her life (5). The slides are similar to the cross channel ferry telescopes in Flaubert's Parrot which clear and fade the view of the coastline depending on what perspective is taken. England, England picks up the theme of a pieced together history in the novel's opening metaphor (and the cover illustration) of a child's puzzle of England.

The child is Martha Cochrane, and her story frames the novel, providing Barnes a chance to foreshadow the Project's scope and establish metaphors and themes, all to be commented on from Martha's more removed perspective at the end of the novel. Her answer to the question, "What's your first memory?" is "I don't remember" (3), so she lies about her first memory, claiming it was of sitting on the kitchen floor putting together a child's puzzle of England. "A memory was by definition not a thing, it was . . . a memory. A memory now of a memory a bit earlier of a memory before that of a memory way back when" (3), she states, establishing a sense of fakery and copied truth which is carried throughout the novel and is seen most clearly in the Project. When Dr. Max, the Project's official historian, describes a local myth involving a woman's Mary Poppin-ish fall from a cliff, no one asks him to cite his source. Truth is less important than the need for an Island attraction, the "Island Breakfast Experience," which includes "an engraved Certificate of Descent stamped with Sir Jack's signature and date" (119-123). Countless such examples of history's malleability are found on the Island, each shifting the theme in a new, but entirely believable way.

Barnes presents the narrative England, England, through numerous short passages which reveal some aspect or background of the history of Sir Jack Pitman's great project and its major players. Individual sections sometimes adopt a unique style, as well, such as a list or, in one case, a newspaper column. In this way, Barnes embeds the puzzle metaphor at a structural level, highlighting events or pieces of the Project's development which then appear to join together to provide one large picture, the essence of what truly happened. The style reminds us that Barnes is in control of the story, our guide through events. We give ourselves over to him in full faith that what he says is true, that he is not like the Project's development team, creating truths from myth.

England, England, is divided into three main sections. The first, named "England," deals with Martha Cochrane's childhood memories and establishes the philosophy of history repeated in various forms throughout the novel. The middle (and longest) section is titled "England, England" and details the Project's development and implementation. There are several sub-plots involving Martha, hired as the Project's official cynic, Sir Jack, Dr. Max, Paul (Sir Jack's "idea catcher"), and a power struggle over control of the Island. The final section "Anglia" is Martha's return to "Old England" which has declined in power, stature, and population as the Island's popularity grew. Anglia seems to have returned to a simpler time, to fiefdoms and pastures, paved roads giving way to forests and villages.

During the course of the novel's last section, Barnes shows us that Anglia is just as fake, based on just as many fuzzy, distant memories and false truths as England, England. When reporters (poorly disguised as hikers) come to Anglia, local inhabitant Jez Harris (himself formerly Jack Oshinsky of Milwaukee, junior legal expert with an American electronics firm) often invents local myths and histories, nurturing the folksy view of Anglia. When Mr. Mullin, the local school teacher (former antiques dealer) offers Jez books of folk stories, Jez answers, "I've tried 'em on that stuff and 'it don't go down so well. They prefer Jez's stories, that's the truth" (244). "I wish he wouldn't invent these things," Mr. Mullin complains to Martha.

    "I've got books of myths and legends he's welcome to. There's all sorts of tales to choose from. He could lead a little tour if he wished. Take them up to Gibbet Hill and talk about Hooded Hangman. Or there's Old Mother Fairweather and her Luminous Geese."

    "They wouldn't be his stories, would they?"

    "No, they'd be our stories. They'd be . . . true." He sounded unconvinced himself. "Well, maybe not true, but at least recorded" (245).

Barnes is not fooled by the return of old England to an idyllic Anglia. He can still see the underlying falsehood of a nation's constructed history, no matter how many folk tales are culled in support of it.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps that depends on which ferry telescope you choose to look through. Many of the telescopes may focus on Barnes's intricate plot (much more happens in the novel than I've touched on, but the book is far too rich for me to summarize), his concern with his character's sexual experiences, his portrayal of the Royal family, his commentary on the state of post-imperial England, or other items on the shoreline. But these themes are just pieces of the novel. Together, they constitute Barnes's primary theme of history.

Cynicism may tell us that all history is just "a memory of a memory of a memory, mirrors set in parallel" (6), and perhaps history is this way, varied and molded, a distant image in a foggy mist. But can we live without it? "It was like a country remembering its history: the past was never just the past, it was what made the present able to live with itself," Martha contemplates. "[E]ven if you recognized all this, grasped the impurity and corruption of the memory system, you still, part of you, believed in that innocent, authentic thing--yes, thing--you called memory" (6-7). England, England is pure, distilled Barnes writing with confidence and power, exceeding all hopes or expectations.

-- Ryan Roberts, © 1999

 
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