On my recent trip to Indonesia, I took an old friend, G.K. Chesterton with me. And he served me very well – good company with a coffee waiting for flights, amusement and wonder for flights, and a peaceful escape after long days of meetings.
Napoleon of Notting Hill was Chesterton’s first published novel (1904). The setting is London in the year, 1984; but this is not a futuristic London, but a place which has changed little, apart from continuing to decline from Chesterton’s time. It’s a London, whose people have grown weary, indifferent, and complacent, and who are no longer surprised or shocked.
Chesterton’s narrator explains, “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep tomorrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”
It is a time, which is already clever enough, and in which real change, fervour, the radical, or revolution can no longer be imagined.
Undoubtedly, the single greatest joy in reading Chesterton is his ability with the English language, and this work is a great example of his clever turns of phrase, delightful playfulness and sense of humour. To read Chesterton, for me, always come with the sense that I am learning anew the English language.
Into the bland London of 1984, Chesterton thrusts an absurd character, Adam Wayne, the provost of Notting Hill. His radical seriousness is described this way, “Every man is dangerous,” said the old man without moving, “who cares only for one thing.” In a world in which nothing was taken too seriously, and in which government and rulers embraced folly, Adam Wayne (‘the first man’) forces choice, allegiances, and a real response.
Throughout his career as a writer and journalist, Chesterton was a fervent voice against complacency and comfort. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, in the midst of the humour and the action, he also serves up sharp insights into the human condition. For example, this remark on the sense of infallibility with which we imbue the status quo, “Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
Chesterton has a marvelous way of being able to see beyond the now, and in doing so, he highlights the folly and foibles of his time and human nature. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, it is the absurd character, Adam Wayne, who refuses to treat life lightly, instead he charges into it and its possibilities head on. And this is what shakes up the world of 1984 London.
In this tale Chesterton depicts a world which is comprised because of its lack of faith in itself, but which is challenged as one man commits to belief and stirring up belief in others. Belief has the power to transform, the good news of Jesus not only transforms but also empowers belief and faith, and that has the power to change the world.