Monday, 18 September 2017


Thomas More Utopia (1516)
I tried this many years ago, prompted by curiosity arisen from reading Lorraine Stobbart's Utopia – Fact or Fiction?, an academic text found in the Mesoamerican section of Foyles. Stobbart's book - which I believe was originally composed as a dissertation for some degree course, either literary or anthropological - examines the possibility of Utopia having been inspired by obscure accounts of Mayan society in the Yucatan.

It is hard to believe that in more than four-hundred-and-seventy years which have passed since the book first appeared, no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction.

So that's what drew me to More's book, and specifically to a Dover edition edited, and presumably translated, by Ronald Herder. Unfortunately it bordered on unreadable, so I abandoned it after about fifteen pages, gave it to Andy Martin, and was thusly left with an unfavourable impression of More's great work: transpiring to bring characters together in order that lengthy speeches may be delivered. I read something similar in Thomas More's Utopia in which some geezer bores his friends shitless with an exhaustive account of what he saw in a mythic foreign land where no-one goes hungry and Sting is president or something - I don't remember it too well, the details weren't overly riveting. Anyway, I never finished Utopia.*

I think I bought this edition mainly because it was there, or perhaps some misplaced sense of either guilt or unfinished business. Anyway, this one is translated by one Paul Turner and is frankly gripping, which just goes to show what damage can be wrought by a dull translation; and just to get it out of the way, whilst Cortés and his band of enterprising ruffians were the first Europeans to arrive in and report upon Mexico and its people, it's true that they weren't absolutely the first. There were at least two individuals shipwrecked and integrated to a greater or lesser degree into Mayan society years before Cortés, as mentioned in early accounts by Bernal Díaz and others. I suppose there may have been others we've forgotten who somehow managed to get some subsequently buried relación back to Europe, but it really doesn't seem very likely. Furthermore, I'm reasonably familiar with the ins and outs of Mayan society as were around the start of the sixteenth century, and not only is Utopia distinctly lacking in parallels, but for the most part it quite obviously describes something both allegorical and completely different, and that would be my guess as to why no-one has seriously challenged the interpretation of Utopia as a work of fiction, Lorraine Stobbart. Just because you've stuck a question mark on the end and made a spooky face, doesn't mean there's an actual mystery.

Thomas More, as much older readers may recall, was Henry VIII's consigliere, the man with the unenviable job of pointing out when his Royal Highness was taking the piss, which, it could be argued, occurred on at least five occasions. Paul Turner's introduction paints More as having been highly intelligent, good humoured, principled, and with a keen understanding of when it was probably best to keep his thoughts to himself. Henry eventually had him wacked for failing to display sufficiently explosive enthusiasm in regard to all those divorces and beheadings, rather than for anything More actually said. Utopia therefore tactfully sets forth a model of civilisation which certain countries might like to adopt, or at least take notes, not mentioning no names or nuffink; because had More made such proposals directly, it probably wouldn't have gone very well for him. The narrative pretends to take a vaguely autobiographical course with More meeting his real life friend, Peter Gilles, a magistrate of Antwerp whilst overseas on official business.

'There's this bloke you should meet,' says Gilles. 'He's really interesting. He's just got back from this place called Utopia.'

'Sure,' says More agreeably. 'Whatevers.'

'I just come back from this place called Utopia,' says the really interesting man once an introduction is effected. 'Blinding, it was.'

'Tell me more,' says More, and thus does the really interesting man embark upon a sentence of one-hundred pages duration telling of all the things seen in Utopia, most of which seem one fuck of a lot more civilised than what you have in certain countries, not mentioning no names or nuffink. More occasionally interjects with something like, 'well, I don't know if I agree with that and I'd say the government of our own amazing king back in England probably has the right idea,' but you can tell he's just being diplomatic.

Some have interpreted More's proposed perfect society as a nascent form of Communism, although probably for the same reason one might regard Christianity as a nascent form of Communism in terms of not acting an arsehole, refraining from stealing things, and avoiding undue emphasis placed on material property. Also it should be kept in mind that this was a perfect society as envisioned by a sixteenth century man with certain prejudices of his own, and is thus better read as a stimulus to thought than as a manifesto; but most significantly, it's a genuinely wonderful book - at least in this translation - and one which should be read more widely today, given that the popularity of certain orange presidents has rudely proven how much we, as a society, have still to learn.

*: Taken from my review of something or other on a long extinct forum and reprinted in this amazing collection, which you should definitely buy, what with Christmas coming up and everything.

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