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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

G.K. Chesterton's novel from a century ago on a theme that's w/ us today

G.K. Chesterton's 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, is so odd, loopy, lunatic, and improbable that it just might make a good movie. Not sure who or what brought this novel to my attention, but I can see why people may be turning to it in these days, as it's ostensibly about a gang of terrorists who are plotting to create havoc in England, London in particular, by setting off bombs in public places. Unlike today's terrorists, these guys are not of any particular religious or ethnic persuasion; they are self-identified as anarchists, and their goal is to eradicate all government and regulation. Extreme as this sounds, the anarchist movement was apparently a true threat in Europe - the descendants of Nietzche - in the early 20th century. For a more conventional novel about this movement and its effect on the community and on individual families, and its ties to radical foreign power, see Conrad's great novel The Secret Agent. Chesterton's novel is on the same theme but is far more cartoonish, exaggerated, and at times comic in approach. In short, the novel begins in a bohemian London neighborhood where a young poet, Gregory, often holds court; on the night in question another poet, Syme, shows up and engages G in a debate about the art of poetry: G believes in free form and breaking all rules, whereas S is conventional in every way. At one point, G offers to show S something that will amaze him, but first extracts a pledge that S. will never speak of this to the police. S agrees, and G leads them to a working-class pub, which turns out to be a front for a cell of anarchists; S joins the meeting of the cell and, improbably, gets elected to represent the group at a higher-level secret meeting. S confesses to G that he is actually a member of the anti-terrorism squad at Scotland Yard - though he says he will keep his pledge and not report to his superiors. In the summary, this sounds like a conventional thriller, albeit w/ some highly improbable plot elements (would an anarchist truly bring a stranger to a high-level meeting?, e.g.), but GKC's telling of the tale is almost comic; for ex., the anarchists hold to the theory that the best way to avoid police attention is to publicly bill themselves as ... a meeting of anarchists. Satire aside, this novel, so far, is a good piece of social commentary from a century ago that prods us to think about the uses of terror and difficulty of thwarting those who will stop at nothing, even today.

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