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England, England

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Julian Barnes´s England, England (1998) is a philosophical novel set in the Great Britain of the not-too-distant future. On the one hand, the novel is the fictional biography of Martha Cochrane, a clever and ambitious Englishwoman with a rural lower middle-class background who, after graduating from university, attempts to climb the ladder of success within corporate Britain. As a woman of about 40, she reaches the zenith of her career when she is employed by the eminent British entrepreneur Sir Jack Pitman whose final project -- a miniature re-creation on the Isle of Wight of all that is essentially English, something more than, and superior to, a theme park -- she helps to realize. After she has been able to dethrone the ageing Pitman by threatening to expose to the world his monthly visits to a high-class brothel, she holds the post of Chief Executive Officer for a few years. But then she breaks up with her lover and accomplice, Paul Harrison, is dismissed as a result and, as persona non grata, leaves for the Continent. After some years of aimlessly travelling the world she re-enters the real Britain, which by now has regressed to an unimportant, insular and almost pre-industrial existence. It is there, somewhere in Wessex, that she spends her final days, solitary, thoughtful and not altogether unhappy.

On the other hand, England, England is the story of Sir Jack Pitman's gigantic project of draining England of everything that is quintessentially English (including the royals), reassembling it on the Isle of Wight and turning that island into an independent member state of the European Union -- a project which quite soon develops its own dynamic and which survives its founding fathers and mothers. At the end of the novel, which reaches well into the 21st century, "Old England", which has adopted its old name, Anglia, is a depopulated country (there is talk of "boat people[?]") reduced in size (after a blitzkrieg, it only consists of the old Anglo-Saxon heptarchy) and characterized by atavism (cf. "Deep England"), while England, England (i e the former Isle of Wight) is still going strong both as a major tourist attraction and a sovereign state in its own right. In the course of the novel, Pitman becomes "Island Governor", but in reality he wants to turn the island into a quasi-dictatorship run solely on the principles of the free market.

On yet another level, England, England is a novel of ideas -- mainly ideas that correspond to the criticism of society voiced by French philosophers of the second half of the 20th century. The seminal work in this respect is Jean Baudrillard's (b.1929) L'échange symbolique et la mort (1976), in which Baudrillard claims that in the course of the 20th century reality has been superseded by "simulacra[?]", by representations of the original which -- in a world where technology has developed the means to replicate each and everything, including works of art (cf. Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit") and humans (by means of cloning) -- acquire an independent and increasingly higher status than the original: because they are safer, easier to handle, more cost-effective[?], ubiquitous and thus more easily accessible, renewable, and predictable. (Cf. "postmodernism" and also U.S. sociologist George Ritzer's "McDonaldization" thesis of the 1990s, in particular his discussion of tourism).

This is exactly what Pitman's final project is all about: He wants his island to epitomize everything which is truly English. As a fervent patriot, he wants to put England in a nutshell for all the world to see and to cash in on England at the same time: He does not mind that the real thing takes a turn for the worse and eventually goes to the dogs.

The two strands of action -- Martha Cochrane's rise to fame and her subsequent downfall on the one hand and the launching of the project and its continuing success on the other -- are intertwined when Martha applies for a job as Special Consultant in Pitman's personal staff, which she gets. Martha has acquired all the professional skills necessary to succeed in our post-industrialist[?] society, yet she has retained from her childhood at least some of her emotional and sentimental inclinations. Although she has become scheming, calculating and ruthless in her professional life, she is still able, at times, to listen to her heart -- especially as far as her relationship with Paul Harrison, the "Ideas Catcher", is concerned. This ability of hers also helps her cope with old age back in rural Anglia.

By having his characters uninhibitedly pervert all the sacred cows of England's long-standing customs and traditions, Barnes inadvertently also collects, registers and critically assesses these myths. For the sake of simplification, however, in the novel old English folklore, customs and legends, but also historical facts, are altered to fit the overall purpose of the Project. As the whole island is supposed to be fit for family consumption, history has to be rewritten and Bowdlerized (so as to pay lip service to political correctness and avoid sexual harassment actions). As they are paying an awful lot, mainly in advance, the visitors to the island are not supposed ever to be faced with anything incomprehensible or illogical because that would spoil the fun for them and could even give rise to complaints.

The majority of attractions of England, England enjoy great popularity. For example, tourists are fascinated by the artificially recreated London "peasoup" fog or by a re-enactment of the Battle of Britain. Visitors also like watching the King, nicknamed "Kingy-Thingy" by his wife, who is still a Windsor; but after the death of Elizabeth II the strict line of succession[?] has been abandoned. Both the King and his Queen enjoy having it off with other people; their escapades are regularly exposed by the tabloid papers. Pitman persuades the King to move permanently to the Isle of Wight, where his only duty is to appear regularly on the balcony of a half-size replica (but with double glazing) of Buckingham Palace for the paying visitors to see. Special script-writers have been hired for him and Queen Denise for the rare instances where they are allowed to say something.

However, due to the fact that the actors sooner or later over-identify with their roles, some of the other attractions go terribly wrong. Robin Hood and his band actually start hunting their own food in the Island's heritage parks and old-English farmyards; the smugglers really start smuggling (cf. Adam Smith's approval of smuggling); and the "Samuel Johnson Dining Experience" turns out to be a flop because Doctor Johnson is regularly rude to the guests who dine at his table.



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