Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Black, White, & Gray

Since its release, Rogue One has been proclaimed – and not only by Disney – to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. In various elaborations on this theme, all the usual suspects line up: gritty, realistic, Ambiguitycomplex, ambiguous. Rogue One mostly lives up to its billing, though in less than exemplary fashion. I would like to examine this, not for the sake of the movie itself so much as for the larger points of complexity and ambiguity in stories.

In the moral compromises of its heroes and a gut-wrenching shot of a little girl terrified in the crossfire of battle, Rogue One finds an ugly side of war that the earlier Star Wars movies do not (though this is somewhat undermined by the relentless battles, which leave the impression that war is endlessly diverting and explosions are more desirable in a story than, say, dialogue). It even gets its hands on a genuine moral dilemma that is latent in technologically advanced warfare. In the course of the movie, the Rebel Alliance plots to assassinate the Death Star’s chief scientist.

By the way: Spoilers.

The idea of assassinating a scientist has a moral queasiness about it, but a case can be made for it. A scientist can have just as much blood on his hands as a soldier, and no one who is dedicated to creating a weapon of crushing, unheard-of power can be considered a noncombatant. Such scientists, as paid employees of a government’s war machine, are civilians only on a technicality; some of them are not even that, being formal members of the military. Why should scientists be entitled to safety while they facilitate the slaughter of millions?

And yet assassination is always a dirty business, cold, cold killing.

Rogue One raises a thorny moral question but never reflects on it. It offers the briefest, blandest justification for the assassination (basically he’s a weapons scientist who builds weapons and those kill people) and then just sort of assumes that it’s wrong. I’m not sure the filmmakers even knew they had a complex moral question. This is why Rogue One, despite reports, is no more thoughtful than the supposedly “unreflective” classic Star Wars trilogy. It is not enough that stories raise a difficult question, nor is it necessary that they answer one; to be reflective you have to, well, reflect.

Just as Rogue One is not a particularly thoughtful movie, neither is it really a complex one. Oh, there’s plenty of ambiguity, which is interesting and, yes, realistic. But ambiguity is not the same as complexity. complexityIt may even be the opposite of it, to the extent that it is simply a muddying of the waters. True complexity requires greater clarity and more distinction, and it doesn’t discard simplicity.

The plot of Rogue One carries the potential for certain moral complexities – that being on the right side does not ensure righteousness, that victims are not necessarily innocent, that war is so terrible it can degrade even heroes. That potential is never developed, partially because the movie is devoted to rushing action and not fine moral points, but also because heroes and the right side are lost in the gray. There’s too much moral ambiguity for moral complexity. Good and evil mix in strange and tragic ways, but to see that requires a distinction between white and black where they do not simply swamp together into gray.

Rogue One is a new kind of Star Wars movie, less of a space opera and more of a war film, and above all a (very competent) action movie. But it’s a mistake to assume that any story will be more reflective because it is gritter, or more complex because it is ambiguous.