Friday, October 26, 2012

G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday

I haven't read much by G. K. Chesterton, save for a number of his Father Brown mysteries.  Therefore, I was expecting an espionage tale with a rather traditional flavor.  The cover of the copy I read had a blurb by Kingsley Amis:  "The most thrilling book I have ever read."   Well, that wasn't exactly what I got when I began reading.

It's a farce, a satire, with a distinct flavor of  Monty Python.  I am also reminded of Joseph Conrad's satiric The Secret Agent, in which the anarchists are depicted as a fairly harmless and silly bunch of parlor terrorists, all except for the Professor, of course   What is curious is that Conrad's The Secret Agent was published in 1907, a year earlier than the publishing date of 1908 for Chesterton's novel.

A satire, even perhaps a farce, for how else could one characterize Chesterton's spy novel in which the head of the British Secret Police conducts his interviews in a darkened room so those who work for him don't know who he is?  In contrast, the evil anarchists are out in the open, holding their meetings out on a balcony where anyone can see and hear them.  Moreover,  the head of the anarchists,  Sunday ( the seven members of the Council identify themselves as days of the week) wears a white suit, and everybody knows who he is.   A Central Anarchist Council?   Organized anarchists? 

Gabriel Syme is recruited for the British Secret Police.  He is the perfect foil for what follows because he is serious about his new occupation and concerned about the harm the anarchists might do.  He's also very naive, foolishly naive, and a perfect picture of the stereotyped noble Englishman.   His task is to infiltrate the anarchists, discover their plans, and report his findings without revealing his true identity.  However, he carries his identification as a member of the secret police with him, just in case he has to identify himself.

In order to be admitted into an anarchist meeting, he has to promise to the anarchist he meets that he won't reveal anything he learns at the meeting to the police.  He manages to get himself elected to the Council and is known as  Thursday.  However, after the meeting he finds himself in a quandary.  He has infiltrated the Central Anarchist Council and is now aware of a plot to kill the Czar and the French President who will be meeting in a few days. But, since he has promised he won't reveal what he knows to the police, he decides that he can't warn the authorities for that would be going back on his word, and to a true Englishman,  his  word is a sacred bond. Consequently, he decides he must stop the assassination on his own.

What follows is farcical.  Those whom he believes are enemies turn out to be friends, while those he believed to support him, turn out to be enemies, for awhile anyway.  After a while, he doubts himself, as to which side he's on.

He and several fellow officers go to France in order to prevent the assassination.  It turns into a pursuit of  Sunday, the head of the anarchists,  for reasons I won't divulge here.  It would only spoil the fun. It is at this point that I wonder if Chesterton is an ancestor in some way of  Monty Python.  After a bewildering series of chases and escapes in which numerous factions change sides several times, everybody eventually returns to England for the ending, if one chooses to call it that.

The pursuit through France and England included boats, horses, buggies, automobiles, an elephant, and an hot air balloon.  Since the Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903, travel by aircraft wasn't feasible yet, otherwise I'm sure Chesterton would have included that in the mix (mess?) also.

Highly recommended if you are looking for something to read that shouldn't be taken too seriously (or at least I think so).  On  the other hand, a second reading may cause me to change my mind about that. 

Read and enjoy.

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