I think this was the first I’ve read of Virginia Woolf, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped though. It didn’t feel like a great deal happened for awhile, at least earlier on in the book, and some of the descriptive or philosophical passages got rather wordy and took a bit to wade through. I didn’t really like any of the characters either, so I didn’t really care what happened to them throughout the book. It was just ok.
Where to begin?…
In this book, we follow Simplicissimus, a rather simple man, as he travels throughout various parts of Europe (and other parts of the world), though not always by his own choice. Ongoing wars in Germany affect him in both good and bad ways throughout the book, as he alternates between fighting and avoiding fighting in various battles (and armies!).
The book isn’t entirely about war though, and you get a glimpse at what life in 1600s Europe was like for all sorts of people there. There’s also a fair dose of religion in the book, as SImplicissimus struggles with others’ sins as well as his own. Occasionally there are historical and biblical references, as well as a tiny sprinkling of fantasy mixed in.
Simplcissimus reminded me of another simple character from a later Czech novel: The Good Soldier Svejk (which I really should read the rest of!). The only difference is that Simplicissimus seems to overcome his simpleness, though not necessarily for good reasons or with good consequences.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I would definitely recommend it. The only negatives for me — besides the poorly edited edition I read — were the heavy religious content, the frequent rambling lists of things, and the strange second half of the last book and ending (that excerpt is a bit of a downer!).
I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish this book, especially after the writing style seemed a little too full of itself, maybe even pretentious. And full of unfamiliar words — either outdated or foreign to me — that required a quick search of the dictionary to keep me going. It reminded me of other German historical fiction books I’d tried to read and quit on, but I kept going.
I am glad that I persisted, because it really was an enjoyable read. Not having known anything about Sir Richard Francis Burton, I became intrigued by this English explorer who was curious about the world and the people in it, and set himself apart from his fellow explorers in many ways.
The story is split into three main sections, each focusing on a different place Burton visited: India and Pakistan, the Middle East, and Eastern Africa. Each section switches between Burton and other individuals, either servants who helped him in his travels or outsiders trying to figure him out. We see his attempts to learn more about the places he visits and the people he meets, including his difficulty in sharing his interest and curiosity with his fellow Englishmen.
The only downside to the book is that it can take some work to get through, so don’t expect a bit of light reading. Some sections get a bit weighty in philosophy or theology, either due to the content or the flowery writing. And it’s best to have a dictionary (or the Internet) handy, since the included glossary — which I found a bit too late — didn’t have definitions for everything, and sometimes the meaning isn’t clear from the context.
That said, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction that features traveling or a great adventure as the main theme. Although it wavers a bit towards the end, the story is a pretty intriguing one that kept my interest throughout.