G. K. Chesterton, 1908.
I discovered a marvelous antique Penguin paperback of The Man Who Was Thursday lurking on the bookshelves among the hordes of books I own but have not read. The cover was in such a state that I felt free to decorate it with cheery stickers donated by my niece.
I knew nothing about the book when I started, and so a lot of the enjoyment of the story was in watching it progress from possible satire to absurdity to crazy-ass surreal allegory re: the nature of the universe. It started out with what I assumed was a satire of some Edwardian social or political movement. I don’t know enough about 1908 politics to understand what GKC was making fun of, but the lighthearted tone and pretty imagery kept me interested enough to keep reading in the hope that I’d figure it out. The adventure plot kicks in pretty quickly with a visit to the underground chamber of a secret order, and then there’s a lot of scampering around London and France in various adventures which become more and more surreal and nightmarish.
The author isn’t interested in being cryptic; every time I noticed that there was some symbolism that I should be figuring out, a character explained it a page or two later. This prevented the philosophy of the book from overwhelming the entertaining action of the narrative – I could just keep reading for fun without all the pesky stopping and thinking.
The protagonist Syme is an anti-anarchist detective, sort of a champion of Order. He joins a secret anarchist society called The Council of Days whose members have codenames for the days of the week. He’s Thursday. “Anarchist” seems to mean “nihilist terrorist”, since they are planning to assassinate political leaders and want to destroy governments and civilization in general. Symes finds out one by one that all the other members of the council are also undercover pro-order detectives, and that they were all recruited by the same inhumanly large man, codenamed “Sunday”. After a duel, a horse chase, a car chase, an elephant chase, and a balloon chase, the characters all have a big party in which they celebrate their allegorical importance and learn that order and chaos both work in the service of Sunday, who calls himself “The Peace of God”, in reference to the seventh day, when creation was finished. And then they’re all happy, because no doubt the universe is unfolding exactly as it should. All agents of chaos are really agents of order, and something greater than human is controlling everything.
Actually, since the title of the book is “The Man Who Was Thursday, a nightmare”, maybe the reader is not supposed to be as reassured as the characters are.