Friday, 27 July 2012

Review - Candide by Voltaire

You may have heard about the latest book-geek internet sensation: the six-year-old who looks at the covers of classic novels and tells her mother what she thinks the book will be about. It's pretty great. My favourite is Steppenwolf, which is apparently
"about a very very hairy eagle who hangs out with fancy ladies.”
You could have fooled me. As a person who has never read Steppenwolf my own personal synopsis would be: "A man is a wolf, probably on the Russian Steppes".

Let's be honest, though, everyone judges books before they should, on the most random and tenuous information. FOR EXAMPLE! The book I am reviewing today, Candide by Voltaire, has always been in my brain as part of the category of 'long, dull books about chaste women who complain a lot', along with Clarissa, and Pamela, and all of those other eighteenth century novels where the entire plot revolves around whether or not the heroine will end up having sex with the villain. I thought Candide was a woman's name (it's that tricksy French 'e'), and I was obviously not focusing at all on the fact that it was written by Voltaire, a man who did not have a dull bone in his angry little body. I should have known that he could never be involved with a boring book.

And so it turns out that Candide is not what I thought it was at all. Instead, it is a very short, very rollicking, very ridiculous pisstake of the whole eighteenth century world. In fact, the only thing I got right was that it is quite a lot to do with rape.

This is a topic that seems to be coming up in my reading very often lately. The book I read before this, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, was pretty much wall-to-wall sexual abuse of the most random and distasteful kind, full of gross, lame 'jokes' about how much women love to be beaten. Candide, though, reminds me that there's pretty much no topic in the world that can't be dealt with - and even joked about - if you do it the right way. Unlike Chase, who seems to get vast amusement from humiliation, Voltaire isn't laughing at the expense of the victims (who can be men as well as women, Voltaire is realistically even-handed here), but at the sheer crazy horror of the fact that in the supposedly Enlightened world of the eighteenth century, rape is still so widespread and commonplace that two women can have a Pythonesque when-I-was-a-lad slanging match about who's been raped more often. (The older woman wins it by screaming 'AND I ONLY HAVE ONE BUTTOCK!', which is going to be my ultimate comeback in all arguments for the rest of my life). It's quite brilliant, and about as blackly humorous as anything I've ever read. If you laugh out loud, it's because Voltaire means you to, but if you're horrified you're still reacting exactly the way he wants. And that's pretty much the tone of the entire book.

For Voltaire, life is nasty, astonishing and long, but also unfailingly amusing. He's got a wicked brain that isn't afraid to poke fun at anything and manages to hit its target every time. He's funny because he's so bad - getting genuine humour out of soldiers chopping civilians up after a battle, for example - but also because everything he's describing is so true, even today. I think we can all agree that rape is still a problem that we have not worked out how to tackle, similarly people massacring each other during wars (step forward, Syria) and torturing each other for economic gain. During Candide's stint in South America, for example, (he goes to South America, discovers El Dorado and brings back several llamas, which are described as 'red sheep'. This is maybe the only bit of unintentional humour in the book) he comes across a black slave with his arm chopped off. Candide (who has a tender heart apart from when he is murdering people by mistake) gets very upset, and the slave says, YEAH, WELL, APPARENTLY YOU GUYS IN EUROPE WANTED SUGAR. I think we can all agree that we still resemble that remark.

At the same time, though, Voltaire isn't trying to argue that the world is a barren wasteland of pure awfulness. Characters who get lost are found; people who are supposedly dead reappear, a bit scarred but otherwise OK. In fact, characters in Candide are as resiliant as bouncy-balls, displaying a delightfully French attitude to their many trials and tribulations. My favourite exchange in the whole book is between Candide and Cunegonde, the first time they are reunited, and it goes like this:
"So were you not raped after all? And were you not disembowelled?"

"I most certainly was, in both cases," said the lovely Cunegonde, "but these things are not always fatal."
Isn't that great? It's shocking, laugh-out-loud slapstick humour, but at the same time there's a serious point hidden in there somewhere too.

Candide is like A Series of Unfortunate Events for grown-ups, equal parts whimsy and brain-spattered sudden death, with fifteen surprising things happening on every page. Candide (who reminded me forcibly of the Elephant's Child with a bit of Pollyanna thrown in) spends the entire novel haplessly trying to achieve his single goal: to find and keep hold of his One True Love, Cunegonde. Unfortunately, this ends up leading him on a Grand Tour of the worst injustices of the eighteenth century world.  He is robbed, cheated and beaten every inch of the way, and about every hundred miles or so he manages to murder someone by mistake, which only makes his problems worse. Almost every (short) chapter ends with a sentence like, 'Alas! At that moment five pirate ships appeared, set light to the fleet, captured the passengers, chopped them up and ate them in a deliciously spicy stew. Only Candide escaped.' Essentially, if you enjoy Angela Carter but feel as though there is sometimes too much menstruation in her novels, you will love it.

Candide works perfectly, on endless different levels. It's ridiculous, it's naughty, it's horrifying and it picks away at your conscience without you even noticing. If you're looking to buy or borrow a copy (which I totally think you should) I highly recommend the translation I had, Penguin's newest one by Theo Cuffe. Unlike Clarissa, Pamela or any of the other dire tragic-women novels that I thought Candide would be like, this is one classic that I think you'll struggle not to be delighted by.

4.5 stars.

Oh, and in case you're following my 1001 Books efforts, Candide brings my percentage over the threshold of the teens to 20.08%.


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