After 107 years, satires are hard to fully understand. A reader might be able to figure out the target of the satire, but the details are harder to pin down. Was this reference to someone’s clothes a shot at some political figure of the time? Was this snatch of Latin a sneer at an academic or clergyman? I felt this way for much of G.K. Chesterton’s twistedly humorous novella, The Man Who Was Thursday. I think I understand it, but I know that a lot of it was lost on me.
Anarchists were the bogeyman of the turn of the twentieth century. Assassinations and assassination attempts were rife. Bombs were being lobbed all over Europe and America—or so it seemed to the middle and upper classes. Our protagonist—not to say hero—is Syme. Syme is the child of radicals and so rebelled by becoming a conformist. He sees disorder and anarchy all around him, but despairs of being able to to anything about it until he meets a policeman who tells him of a special anti-anarchist squad in the police. Syme is immediately recruited and sent off to find some anarchists. He succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. After only a few days on the job, he finds himself elected to an international council of anarchists.
Syme sweats bullets at the first meeting of seven leading anarchists, all code-named after days of the week. (Syme is Thursday.) Then the president reveals that one of their number is actually a police spy. Over the course of the novella, more and more of the “anarchists” are also uncovered as police operatives. The Man Who Was Thursday grows increasingly absurd as identities are discovered, operatives chase and duel each other in France, and finally confront Sunday—the man behind it all.
At the end, Chesterton pulls one more twist out of his pen and turns the book on its head. And this is where he lost me. I could believe The Man Who Was Thursday as a satirical take on the overblown fear of anarchists. Chesterton had me laughing out loud at the outrageously polite things his characters would say:
“My God!” said the Colonel, “someone has shot at us.”
“It need not interrupt conversation,” said the gloomy Ratcliffe. (Chapter XII*)
I was reminded of Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome more than once. Syme and his putative allies are hunting anarchists, but that’s no reason to let standards slip.
The end of the book, however, just doesn’t fit. This is the part of the review where I spoil a novel published in 1908. Syme and the gang track Sunday, the president of the anarchists**, to the man’s country house. Monday through Saturday are dressed up in allegorical costumes matching their code-names to the days of creation. Chesterton pulls back the curtain further to reveal that Sunday is a stand-in for god, the police operatives represent the various ways humans seek truth (science, poetry, etc.), and that the only real anarchist in the book is Lucifer in the guise of a Bohemian poet.
As I read the last two chapters of The Man Who Was Thursday, I resented the authorial intrusion in what I was enjoying as a cutting satire of political hysteria. I rolled my eyes more than once as Sunday—sounding an awful lot like Chesterton—drew all the parallels that transformed the story into just one more Christian allegory. Like C.S. Lewis would later on with The Chronicles of Narnia, Chesterton starts to beat his readers about the head with a metaphorical 2×4.
It’s books like The Man Who Was Thursday that make me wish I was in the editorial room before the book was published, so that I could try and talk the author out of ruining their book. Readers, read this book for the first thirteen chapters, then stop. Pretend the last two chapters never happened.
* Quotes from the Project Gutenberg edition of The Man Who Was Thursday.
** Yes, president. The anarchists in this novella are surprisingly regimented and organized.