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Books: On an island of lost souls

Valentine Cunningham on a satire that takes the pith out of our past
England, England

by Julian Barnes

Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99, 266pp

JULIAN BARNES'S novels like to get the whole world in their hands. They want to have everything in 101/2 chapters: the whole thing, of course, is a whole lot of faking going on. For Barnes's best tales are about exposing history, from Genesis to Apocalypse, as no more than the consoling stories we tell ourselves.

makes a lovely addition to this grappling match with our cravings for make-believe. A merry dystopia indeed, it deals with a gang of entrepreneurs whose latest money-spinning dodge is to turn the Isle of Wight into an Essence of England theme park. Compliant historians, docile corporate sidekicks, the sharp-minded England-lover Martha Cochrane: all fall in with this wheeze of coarse and wily Sir Jack Pitman. So do the King, and Denise his Queen - House of Windsor icing on a touristic retro-dream of Olde England in one fast-forward, easy-listening go. Boadicea, Big Ben, Anne Hathway's Cottage, White Cliffs, Nell Gwynne, Man United, The Last Night of the Proms: here they all are on a plate, convenient to Tennyson Airport, a plasticated visitors' joy for ever. All, naturally, for glorious profit: , the pure market state.

Barnes's satiric relish for Sir Jack's history scam runs at glorious full tilt. The ironies set in very pleasingly indeed. And they do not just involve what the great money-bags gets up to at Aunty May's brothel for sexual retards. The mess of the human has a most discomfiting way of unsettling heritage fictions. So the actors playing Robin Hood and his Merrie Men quickly get a real taste for real poaching and real violence; Dr Johnson turns genuinely smelly and morose.

All delightful stuff, as entertaining a set of footnotes as could be to Lucky Jim's aborted Merrie England lecture. Still more arresting is what happens to Martha Cochrane. She appears in the wonderful opening section of the novel, remembering herself as a little girl playing with a Counties of England jigsaw. Her daddy hides Staffordshire, say, in his pocket; then deserts her, leaving her to make up plausible first memories, and invent spry blasphemies about father-figures and paternosters. ("Alfalfa, who farts in Devon," she recites, "For this is the wigwam, the flowers, and the story...".)

Martha seems a representative seeker for truths about origins, her own and England's. Instructively, she doesn't last long as Sir Jack's henchwoman. She prefers lighting out for the run-down mainland. Anglia, as it is known, is a dustier Portugal, demoted to the fringe of Europe. But it proves a kind of paradise, some sort of genuine old England, where tourism and new technology are banned. You write with a fountain pen, dial 0 for operator, and go to the village church.

Julian Barnes's cautionary tales run with fine eagerness towards the essay: think of Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters. This latest venture will delight his huge European following as surely as those novels did. Deservedly so, even if here the essayistic enticements are firmly subdued to the regular pleasures of narrative.

Not, though, that Barnes's scathing eye for the follies and mistakings of story ever falters. To be sure, Martha settles for a low-key village existence, but she and her author still go on staunchly resisting the lures of the old credences. During yet another sermon in her village church, she reminds herself of the wigwam, the flowers and the story. It's "just another pretty verse," she thinks. Which comes as a relief: for a moment, you could almost see Barnes's usual scepticisms wavering...

Spoken Word, page 16