I’d like to start this review with a warning. Whilst commenting on this book I’m going to compare it to a series of popular modern fantasy books. Those of you who are die hard Voltaire fans may wish to stop reading now and spare yourselves the stress induced stomach ulcers.
For many years I have heard people say a phrase that made absolutely no sense. “Nothing can be otherwise than as it is.” I had no idea that this was a translation taken from Voltaire’s “Candide”. Taken without context it’s a fairly nonsensical expression. But after reading and discovering the “great” philosopher Pangloss it is easy to see why these words have been taken up by optimists the world over. The problem with this is that they, like me when I started reading, are unaware that Voltaire is laughing at them.
I have a confession to make about classic literature. I never read the introductions. Most of the time they divulge half of the plot and tell you what to look out for. For me, that somewhat defies the reason for reading. This is my journey, not someone else’s. This is one book where I wish I’d made an exception. Within a couple of pages I was utterly confused and wondering why on earth this was considered a classic. It was only when I went back to the introduction that I read the most important word associated with this novel. Satire! If taken literally this book is the ramblings of an idiot. Coincidence by the bucket load, a plot that could have been created by a five year old (minus the syphilis I would hope) and characters that are quite simply moronic.
However, when looked at as a satire of genre, optimism, philosophy and the people in Voltaire’s life, it becomes a fairly brilliant commentary. This novel is everything that Voltaire finds wrong with the world, both real and literary. The overriding message that I took away from this was that, believing everything is for the best will leave you lethargic and not wanting to make things better. When Candide and his friends have finally found happiness they are bored because they believe there’s nothing else. By “tending to their garden” they are able to make happiness for themselves instead of waiting for God or the Universe to do it for them.
The one issue I had with the book doesn’t stem from the writing or the plot. It’s just a timing issue and Voltaire can do very little to fix it. Much of what happens in the story is a satire on Voltaire’s life. The problem is that I wasn’t alive at the same time as Voltaire. There may be priests in the book who have very similar names and actions to popular priests in the real world that the author had fallen out with but they are priests that I have no knowledge of. If you are going to read the book then I recommend one with full foot notes on each page to explain the individual satire’s as they take place. This will at least offer some context to what you’re reading.
Many people compare the Satire in Candide to that written by Jonathan Swift. I’d like to throw a spanner in the works and offer a more contemporary comparison. Terry Pratchett. Before you curse my name and call me nasty names please hear me out. Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels are, in my opinion, one of the most successful satires on modern life available. Any Londoner will be able to read descriptions of Ankh Morpork and see London. Anyone who has complained about government decisions being made “ for the good of the people” will chuckle at Lord Vetinari legalising assassination to keep the peace. Not only are the stories massively entertaining but the parodies and satires on our own lives make them wonderfully relatable. Even the plots in general smack of contemporary affairs. Be it the feminist agenda in “Equal rites” or the fierce rivalries and racism of “Unseen Academicals” these stories match our world far too strongly to be an accident.
So there you are. From Candide to the Discworld in 700 words. I’m expecting some fallout from this one. Before I leave myself at the mercy of the comment section I’d like to leave you with a quote from Candide itself. “For my part I read only to please myself and like only what suits my taste.” I look forward to hearing your thoughts.