It’s funny how we didn’t have any of Voltaire’s work as mandatory reading as literature students, makes me question my degree a little. Anyway….
‘Candide’ is a novella sized satire, first published in 1759, and Voltaire had it printed in four different countries anonymously, without having his name or the publisher’s name on any page. Because he mocks the church, criticizes monarchies and didn’t want to end up in Bastille for pissing off people. The story follows young Candide, who gets thrown out of his castle, ends up in the Bulgarian military, is almost beaten to death, shuffled around the world, escaping death dozens of times through the course of this ridiculous and hilarious work.
Through his protagonist, the simple-minded Candide, Voltaire exposes and exaggerates all possible vices to be found in the world of men. It almost feels like there is no civilization, and perhaps it is reflective of the times in which he lived, where monarchies still ruled most of humanity, and men were feuding barbarians, ready to murder and rape at the drop of a hat. After a point, it’s hard to keep track of the number of lands Candide travels to, either fleeing from death or on the lookout for the woman he loves. And almost everywhere he goes, he is swindled in some way or the other. But it seems that every mortal in this story has had tragedy upon tragedy befall upon them, so much so that they can have a contest to see who has led a more miserable life, and it will be hard to decide upon a winner.
Reading Voltaire makes one wonder if he is the source of the ‘comeback’/’back from the dead’ trope, popular in most television shows across the world – where a beloved character dies, only to be found alive after a few episodes. Although, one needs to credit Voltaire’s extraordinary wit, because at least his characters have more logical reasons for re-surfacing, than the ones in modern soaps. Remember, Joey from the American sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S making a comeback as Dr Drake Ramoray in a tv soap, long after his character dies and is then resurrected after a brain surgery? Or if you are an Indian, you’d perhaps know of the many Ekta Kapoor serials, where characters die only to to be brought back from the dead in the most ingenious of ways. Voltaire’s influence is clearly everlasting.
For a lot of readers, ‘Candide’ doesn’t become interesting till at least chapter eight, until then, the story feels very disjointed and pointless, the protagonist simply floating through life, with some incredible luck on his side. In-fact, Candide is ridiculously fortunate, almost like the 18th century version of Rajinikanth (an Indian super-star who can stop bullets with his teeth), somebody who constantly survives death by a whisker. Tempests, earthquakes, lashes, daggers, diseases, nothing proves fatal for our hero. While some would say he is extremely unfortunate, but with his simple wit and easy trusting nature, he is rather extraordinarily lucky.
As far as Voltaire’s own influences are concerned, it’s very obvious that he drew heavy inspiration from the ‘1001 Nights’, stories from the Arab world. There’s an ‘oriental’ touch to the way he describes scenes that involve traveling to new places. And just like ‘1001 Nights’ embeds several tales within tales, most characters in Candide too keep narrating interesting stories. In-fact, along with mocking the Catholic church, Voltaire doesn’t shy away from mocking Islam either. There’s a part where a character recalls Muslim men of plundering and raping women, but never failing to do their prayer five times a day, amid all the chaos and barbarity. With the church he takes even more liberties, going as far as having a fictional Pope with a bastard child.
A lot of witty parallels to real figures will be lost on contemporary readers, because like most writers, Voltaire was in the habit of basing his characters on people he encountered. So It’s easy to see why the author would have wanted to remain anonymous with this wild sarcastic tale. He takes jibes at the the French, the German, the Arabs, the Bulgarians, Jews, well, pretty much everybody. If there’s one idealistic place in the text, it’s the mythical “El Dorado”, a rich inaccessible kingdom, where gold has the value of clay, diamonds and precious gems are considered mere pebbles, and travelers who accidentally find their way into that elusive kingdom, are treated no less than visiting kings. It’s the only place where the hero finally has some respite, and is able to take a real break, and yet, he leaves, for love. Of course.
In subtle ways, Voltaire contradicts all sorts of philosophies he presents through the story. While many a times he extols the virtues of being wealthy, simultaneously, he also displays how riches can only doom one to suffer more misery. Then there’s the optimistic philosophy he professes through Candide’s tutor Pangloss, who firmly believes that “every effect has a cause, and that things happen for the best”. But Pangloss expounds his theory in such an imbecilic manner, that one loathes Candide’s faithful admiration for the man. For example, according to Pangloss, people eat pork, hence, pigs are on earth to be eaten. His explanation amounts to making the effect responsible for the cause and not vice-versa.
I have to confess that half-way through, I really lost interest in the text, it gets really boring and tedious in between, and the 18th century English is just doesn’t make for smooth reading. Yet, as readers, you get invested enough to want to know what happens in the end, and the small size of the story helps. Most popular modern works seem a lot less exciting against this story, which has so much happening, that it’s ludicrous and fantastical.
It’s a 4/5 from me.
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