Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes.
Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0-307-26310-X
I was at Bookshop Santa Cruz – funny how a visit to towns like Santa Cruz end up at that bookstore – and this book on the New Fiction table just jumped at me and said, “buy me.” It had, of course, the appeal of being hard bound, which I really like, and of having that round sticker on it that said “Autographed Copy.” Yes, I remembered, this Julian Barnes was around, and I never paid attention. I heard him on the radio, on KALW, but sometimes I hear the radio and don’t listen – or so I thought. In a definite leap of faith, I bought the book – my friends and I had just discussed how I was frugal when I didn’t need to be.
Arthur and George takes the reader through short episodes in the distinct lives of Arthur and George, entitled, “Arthur” and “George” until they are merged to “Arthur and George” in an episode that does not talk about either of them. The expectation builds up: when are they going to meet? What do they have in common that will cause them to meet?
When Arthur turns out to be Arthur Conan Doyle, I strangely remembered hearing that in the radio interview. I should listen better. George is this cautious man whose life is all ordered and calculated. He takes the same train every day, performs the same walk just before going home, and publishes a laymen’s treatise on the laws of the railway so that people would know what to do in case of, say, losing luggage, or being caught with the wrong ticket. This goes well until the local police designates him as prime suspect for a series of anonymous letters ultimately linked to new moon animal slaughters. It is absurd, because George does nothing to draw suspicion on him. All the attention of the Chief Constabulary, and therefore of all the police, is on him, apparently because George is of Parsee heritage. George thinks himself an Englishman – he was born in England, his father is a minister of the Anglican Church, he has very English habits – but not the police. Soon, they arrest him, try him, and all along George thinks the error will be corrected and he will be free. He ends up in jail with an exemplary long sentence.
So, we think, that is how Arthur will meet George, because it is important for us to know how the law can work in the right way. Arthur does not pay particular attention to the many requests he receives from the public believing that he is Sherlock Holmes and that he can investigate crimes for them. It is only due to his circumstances at the time that his attention is steered to George’s injustice. He meets George, who has been inexplicably freed but unable to resume his normal life as a solicitor, and is convinced that George is incapable of the crimes imputed to him. In his first investigation ever – imitating Holmes – Arthur soon discovers that it would have been impossible to conclude that George could have been guilty at all. He publishes articles and makes it a national scandal, but at the end the judiciary is nothing but political: it will not retract, only withdraw its guilty verdict. The ordeal is said to be the precursor to the addition of the Appeals process to the court system.
It could not be more timely to point out this fact, when people have been arrested and incarcerated without due process in the USA under the umbrella of the “war on terror.” There is no difference between the Chief Constabulary’s belief that George can only be guilty and the way the US Government is treating not only “enemy combatants” (a convenient appellation to avoid the Geneva Convention and US law), but also its own citizens (by placing them in a new category defined by the Patriot Act).
Regardless, it is not the purpose of a book review to be a soap box for justice. I was simply surprised at the coincidence. There are more to be found in the book. There is the fact that all along George is the only believer in the law of the land, whereas Arthur and everybody else are the victims of passions and beliefs.