Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.
There’s good sense in taking five-star and one-star book reviews with a grain of salt. For many, it is easier to fall back on exaggeration, of which I’ve often been guilty. What challenges me constantly is not letting my feelings get ahead of myself, and this book is not helping matters. More to the point, I loved it. Candide, the little book that could (and most definitely did if it caused so many highers-up to clutch at their pearls in offended pride), goes for just under a hundred pages, but reads like it has half that amount. Voltaire, from the first word, hits the ground rocketing, wasting no time after introducing all the important characters in throwing the titular one headfirst into one unlucky situation after another, each crazier than the last. Candide the character, subscribing to Pangloss’s school of thought (modeled after Leibniz’s) that “all is best” and as intended, takes optimism to hilariously absurd extremes.
The plot basically boils down to his chasing the love of his life, Cunégonde, around the world, accompanied by a group of assorted characters, while Voltaire rather matter-of-factly subjects them to a series of misfortunes. Whatever you can name, the book likely has it: volcanoes, earthquakes, war, thievery, greed, slavery, corruption, rape, religious persecution, and class warfare, to say nothing of cannibalism (“[c]ut off only one buttock from each of these ladies… and you’ll have a delicious meal”) and bestiality (“[w]hy do you find it so strange that in some countries there should be monkeys that enjoy the favors of ladies?”). Don’t let the last two examples send you fleeing for the hills because, as with most things, they read much better, if not funnier, in context. By itself, the book would just be an amusing novelty, an easy conversational piece for coffee tables, if not for Voltaire’s reason for writing Candide: to expose the various injustices he had observed in his time as the idiocies they were and are, the most significant of which being the aforementioned Leibniz’s assertion that our world is the “optimal among all possible worlds,” given that God in his omnipotence and omniscience could not possibly produce anything less than the best. It was almost too easy, and I’m sure Voltaire, amid much cackling and hand-rubbing, must’ve thought as much.
Far from content with stopping at just Leibniz, Candide doesn’t pick and choose between the various evils of the world; everyone, if they’ve done wrong and been dishonest, gets pissed on in Voltaire’s golden shower, and it’s a lovely, lovely thing to watch. From governments and poets to doctors and playwrights, none escape unscathed. The English and French are “raving lunatics,” the Portuguese superstitious fools, heads of states powerful cowards (“[s]ome of them die of [castration]; others acquire more beautiful voices than that of any woman; still others go off to rule states”), and doctors useless pretenders (“[w]ith the aid of medicines and bloodlettings, Candide’s illness became serious”). Also, Voltaire was not above being a little retaliatory, as his loudest detractors (from the Journal de Trevoux to Freron to Trublet, according to my footnotes) found their way into the book to be his playthings. Their supporters are given equal mercy: after one of the minor characters went on a rant about Trublet, another “of learning and good taste… confirmed what [she] had said," a zinger so stealthy I almost missed it.
Translators can make or break even the best of foreign-language books, so I made sure to hunt down the best of them, who turned out to be Lowell Bair, for whom I can now wholeheartedly vouch. His translation is unobtrusive and pleasant to read, all anyone requires, and that alone puts him ahead of the pack. As for the book itself, I can't praise it enough. Granted, aside from just the one (where Pangloss meets the dervish and his door), there weren't many parts that made me laugh out loud as often as those in Terry Pratchett and Bill Bryson's books have. Yet I'm sensible-minded enough not to deduct points from Voltaire for so small an issue, as it really is so much more than a fishing attempt for belly-bursting laughs. With fast pacing, fleshed-out characters, and an insane plot, Candide is short, readable, and so much fun. Best of all, it's audacious.