I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, and when I saw a copy at a library book sale I immediately grabbed it and added it to my TBR shelf. And because lately I’ve been reading a lot of slim books, I finally picked this one up and started reading. This book contains three stories: Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and also an interesting summary on the life and works of Voltaire (real name Francois Marie Arouet), whose rebellious nature and radical philosophical ideas made him famous.
“He never hesitated to use his personal fame to convince, provoke, and inflame where he thought necessary. He contributed greatly to the creation of modern forum of political/moral debate by fostering an environment of inquiry and interpellation at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.”
Denounce, without being able to be accused of being an informer; bite, without cruelty; trample, without malice; kill, while maintaining the appearance of the most angelic innocence.
The first is the story of Candide, an innocent, well-mannered young man who lives in the castle of the noble Baron of Thundertentrunk in Westphalia and studies philosophy under the tutelage of Pangloss, who used to teach “the science of metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-noodleology”. That is, he was a firm believer in the idea that there is no effect without a cause and that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. This idea will follow Candide in all his many adventures, as he is rudely kicked out of the castle for inappropriate behavior towards beautiful miss Cunegund and travels across continents in the hope that one day he will be reunited with her.
Those adventures include a very painful encounter with the Bulgarians, natural disasters, finding unlikely friends in odd places, and killing in the name of love.
While the descriptions and some of those adventures may sound quite brutal, there’s an underlying layer of mockery that prevents the reader from taking things too seriously. Voltaire uses his great talent for satire to talk about religion, war, love, friendship, slavery, and the greed for money, among other things. He places Candide in the most brutal and uncomfortable situations, his only defense and ally his ideas instilled in him by his tutor, Pangloss. There were times when I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or be outraged, but it is clear that in this story Voltaire pokes fun at the injustice and corruption of the times.
Candide is just a simple man, neither exceptionally witty nor knowledgeable about the world, and sometimes wonderfully idealistic especially when it comes to love and placing his trust in his friends. The idea that drives him, to be reunited with his love, doesn’t turn out like he expected; in fact, in a vicious twist of fate, the very qualities he admired the most in miss Cunegund are lost and our hero is faced with an uncomfortable decision. But because he is such a positive character, he does what he thinks is honorable and finds contentment in living a simple life.
The whole story has a feeling of Arabian Nights about it, not only because of the astonishing reversals of luck and incredible adventures, but also because of the chapter titles that give a clear idea of what is going to happen. This feeling is even more prevalent in the next story, Zadig, which takes place in Babylon.
Zadig is a rich young man, wise and educated, kind-hearted and good looking, possessor of an array of fine qualities that make him respected and envied by his fellow men. In spite of all his many attributes, he finds himself in some very sticky situations, whether by the hand of envious people or trapped by his own beliefs. He is in turn the adviser of a king, slave, champion of the oppressed, and umpire of philosophical as well as commercial disputes. Still, his great talents are put to the test when he falls in love with queen Astarte, wife of the king, and he is forced to leave the castle for fear of being killed.
Once again Voltaire explores what it means to be human, and how a gifted man whose only purpose is to help others is in turn punished, almost killed, and in the end forced to run for his life. His tribulations seem never ending but one thing Zadig never does is to try and change his nature. In spite of his many misfortunes, he remains true to his own character, even if that almost always seem to turn out badly for him. This is a story similar to that of Candide, but also different. While it follows the same pattern of trials and tribulations the main character has to go through, Zadig is wise and lucky enough to recognize people’s intentions and to save his skin. The ending is a bit brighter this time as well, but the happily ever after doesn’t come easily. From all three stories, this is the most fairy-tale like.
Micromegas, the third and last story, was quite a surprise. Gone are the fairy tale/Arabian Nights influences that seem to heavily influence the first two stories, to be replaced by space. Using science fiction as a background, Voltaire tells the story of two beings – Micromegas, who lives on a planet that revolves around the star Sirius, and a native of Saturn, the Saturnian. They are huge beings by our standards and posses a much longer life span. In their conversations, they explore topics like the senses, colors, and time. They decide to travel together to see other places and they arrive on Earth.
Voltaire describes our planet as seen by the two travel companions. They judge its size and appearance, find it “ill-constructed” and “irregular” and decide that no “people of sense would wish to occupy such a dwelling”. They look for signs of life and can’t seem to find any at first, but when they try harder they discover a ship and try to communicate with the people on board, some of which are philosophers. The exchange that ensues is quite funny.
Under the shelter of philosophy, Voltaire explores once again universal issues – the passage of time, knowledge, wars over the possession of land, the nature of human soul, religion. Man is never satisfied with how much time he has, or how much land he has, or how much knowledge he has, but then neither are the two visitors. In spite their difference in size and life style, the visitors are astonished to discover they have quite a few things in common with the inhabitants of the strange shaped planet. But perhaps the most astonishing thing happens when Micromegas promises to gift them with a rare book that contains “all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things”. I confess I was curious when I got to this part and couldn’t wait to see what was in the book. It was opened in Paris, at the Academy of Sciences, but if you really want to find out what was in it you will have to read the story. All I can say is that it made perfect sense, and the story couldn’t have had a better ending.
This is my first encounter with Voltaire’s work. Behind references to famous philosophers – Locke, Leibnitz, Aristotle, and Malebranche, some of which I knew and some new to me, his work is made accessible by the universal themes he explores. His tone is in turn sarcastic and funny and sometimes biting. He’s not afraid to expose an injustice, punish an evil or poke fun at sensitive topics. His characters are not perfect but their nature, be it simple or wise, is tested to the limits. He sparks witty dialogues that underneath their academic knowledge hide social and political issues valid to this day. He made me wonder. He made me nod in agreement. And he made me realize that time has done nothing to the nature of man, that issues that were discussed and dissected more than two hundred years ago are still fresh today.
I leave you with some of my favorite passages:
“We have more matter than we need,” said he, “the cause of much evil, if evil proceeds from matter; and we have too much mind, if evil proceeds from the mind. Are you aware, for instance, that at this very moment while I am speaking to you, there are a hundred thousand fools of our species who wear hats, slaying a hundred thousand fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over all the earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial?”
“How long do you people live?” asked the Sirian.
“Ah! a very short time,” replied the little man of Saturn.
“That is just the way with us,” said the Sirian; “we are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”
…“you see how it is our fate to die almost as soon as we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom. Scarcely have we begun to acquire a little information when death arrives before we can put it to use. For my part, I do not venture to lay any schemes; I feel myself like a drop of water in a boundless ocean. I am ashamed, especially before you, of the absurd figure I make in this universe.”
“I have seen mortals far below us, and others as greatly superior; but I have seen none who have not more desires than real wants, and more wants than they can satisfy. I shall some day, perhaps, reach the country where there is lack of nothing, but hitherto no one has been able to give me any positive information about it.”
“The dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than we are. The Dutch fetishes who have converted me tell me every Sunday that we are all the children of Adam, blacks and whites alike. I am no genealogist; but, if those preachers say what is true, we are all second cousins. In that case you must admit that relations could not be treated in a more horrible way.”
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014