Monday, 22 June 2015

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

This is not the cover of the edition I read, but I couldn't find that one, and I find the guy deliberately touching his nose to the other guy while a celestial train comes towards them the most fun of the covers I could find. Because frankly, this is that kind of weird little book. Weirdly prescient, funny, with a twist at the end that could give you whiplash, but which I suppose I should have been expecting.

Written in 1908, G.K. Chesterton's very strange book details an anarchist underground, remarkably well organized. It is infiltrated by a poet who is also a police detective, having been recruited by an anti-anarchist force who appears to recruit from the literary classes, as apparently that is also where the anarchists breed.

There is much about this that is fascinating - Chesterton's characters' assertion that the true danger comes not from the working class, which was certainly under suspicion for revolutionary leanings at the time. No, the anarchists assert that the working class and the poor want in on the system, to not be screwed by it anymore. They don't want to tear the system apart. It's the well-educated you have to look out for, where you find men who have enough disposable income to dedicate themselves to intellectual ideals alone.

The writing about the poets is fairly hilarious. One of the guys in my book club checked in to make sure he was supposed to be finding it funny. It was. (Book Club is tonight, as I write this, and I am so curious to find out what people make of the book as a whole.) I didn't find the prose overly dense, considering the time period, and definitely snarky.

The poet and the anarchist swear oaths to never reveal what the other one tells them to the police or to the other anarchists, respectively, and the anarchist is surprisingly strongly bound by his word. This leads to the poet/detective being elected to the Supreme Council of Anarchists in Europe. Once there....

I really want to tell you what happens once he's there. But it's so delightful and delightfully silly, and while it may not be what Chesterton wanted you to get out of it, exactly, the whole idea that the police create their own enemies tickled me so much, while also making me startled at how early this idea was coming along.

Then there's the ending. If I tell you there's a twist, I pretty much guarantee you won't see it coming. I didn't, and I knew who Chesterton was, and what he was all about. I probably should have. It's a very strange turn, and while I get the point of it, it's hard not to feel spun around.

This was a quick read for ye olde Book Club this month, and it's a strange but amusing artifact of a particular time and a particular author. I'm glad we read it. 

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