Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

The mouse that roared
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a satirical novel by British author G. K. Chesterton, was originally published in 1904. Because the story is set in the future (the year 1984), this book qualifies as a science fiction novel, but just barely. In the book’s introduction, Chesterton makes fun of his science fiction contemporaries and their grand visions of the future, insisting that chances are the world of the future will be pretty much the same as the world we live in now. In fact, the London of the future that Chesterton depicts in this novel has more in common with medieval times than the present-day world of 1904. Those readers interested in early works of science fiction, therefore, would best avoid this book, as it is first and foremost a political satire. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that this satire isn’t very funny at all.

Chesterton presumably set the novel in the future so that he could depict an alternate reality where democracy has overstayed its welcome. The apathetic citizenry of the world’s nations has happily acquiesced to the rule of despots. England no longer worships its aristocracy, so the ruler is no longer chosen by the divine right of heredity. Instead, when one king dies a new one is chosen at random from the general public. The lucky winner is Auberon Quin, an insignificant little man with a silly sense of humor. He takes his newfound regality as one big joke and institutes policies of pomp and pageantry under which minor city functionaries are given grand titles of nobility and forced to wear flashy uniforms bearing heraldic insignia. Unfortunately, Quin’s sense of humor (and Chesterton’s) leaves a lot to be desired. If you find a man putting his coat on backwards or hopping on one leg to be hilarious, then this is the novel for you. Quinn’s absurdities are more annoying than funny. Chesterton also doesn’t seem to realize that there is nothing less funny than a comedian who openly praises his own sense of humor.

King Auberon and his advisors come up with a plan to build a thoroughfare through London, but one stubborn holdout refuses to sell his land to the government. This is Adam Wayne, the Provost of Notting Hill. When the royal troops try to take his neighborhood by force, Wayne rebels against the monarchy, and Notting Hill secedes from England. From here the novel oddly transforms into a military narrative, complete with complex descriptions of troop movements. For some unexplained reason, no one uses guns in the late 20th century, as everyone fights with halberds, swords, and pole axes.

The final third of the book really wallows in its pretentious attempts at profundity, which feels very odd given the ridiculousness that precedes it. Chesterton depicts Wayne as an honest-to-God freedom fighter, but what’s the point when the tyranny in question is the ludicrous regime established in the opening chapters? Hundreds die through violent bloodshed, yet Quin thinks it’s all a joke. Meanwhile, through the character of Wayne, Chesterton seems to be saying that the loss of human life is justified as long as it results in the mythology of heroes and statues of martyrs that keeps mankind aspiring to something beyond complacency. Society needs both the fanatic and the satirist, the author claims, but this is one satirist I could have done without.

About the best thing I can say about this book is that Chesterton has a fine command of the English language. What he chooses to say with it, however, is neither entertaining or enlightening. If I ever cross paths with Chesterton again, I’ll stick with his mystery stories.
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