Having awoken from our uneasy dreams (and, thankfully, finding ourselves in fairly normal condition), it’s time to bid a fond farewell to our new friends in the slums and head back towards Europe for the next leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey. This latest stage of our lengthy travels also involves a trip back in time, as we find ourselves introduced to a fascinating historical figure, albeit one many readers will probably be unfamiliar with. Alas, with trouble all around, there’s little time to get used to our new surroundings, so grab your pitchfork, and let’s hit the streets – it’s time for a revolution…
The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
– Picador, translated by Mark Polizzotti
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
It’s 1525, and Thomas Müntzer, a young priest and a very angry young man, has had enough. When still a young boy, his father was hanged, and this experience was enough to radicalise him, forcing him away from the beliefs of the establishment and towards a conviction that things had to change, and that someone had to change them. It’s a common story, but in the early-sixteenth century it was a dangerous one, too, with church and nobility not exactly known for their willingness to share the wealth.
Having excited the common folk, and upset their leaders, with his fiery sermons, Müntzer finally goes so far that the people explode, marching on the local rulers in the hope of creating a new world. As Vuillard shows us, it’s not the first time this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. However, when the poor go to war, they’re usually at a massive disadvantage, and when the rich get the upper hand, they rarely show leniency, or mercy.
The War of the Poor is a brief historical piece, with Vuillard choosing to explore the life of one man as an example of how throughout the ages the rich have been exploiting the poor. Although the poor occasionally rise up in protest against their exploitation, these rebellions rarely end well, and we see here how the leaders of these protests tend to meet a gruesome end. It’s something we still see play out today, and even if it’s not quite in the same league (pardon the pun) as Müntzer’s uprising, it was amusing to watch all the recent football machinations playing out, and the bewilderment of the English club owners who thought their plans for a money-hoovering monopoly would be welcomed with open arms…
The book is set in a time of flux where society is reeling from the changes brought about by the likes of Johannes Gutenberg, Martin Luther and Jan Hus, and we sense that the time is ripe for major upheaval. Müntzer, who has his reasons for wanting change, feeds off this energy and uses it to manipulate the minds of the common folk, convincing them that their lives are unfair and that they need to be freed. Vuillard does an excellent job here of showing us the preacher’s motivations and how he got to the point of the firestarter, a revolutionary instigator.
The more we learn of Müntzer, the easier it is to see why he ended up as he did. Unhappy with the status quo, he’s determined to push boundaries, always willing to provoke those in power, pushing them into conflict. One of his main ‘faults’ is his decision to change the way God’s word is communicated:
They want to hear the word in German, they want to know what someone has been telling them all these years in that alien tongue; they’re sick of repeating amen and those incomprehensible couplets. It’s no insult to God to ask him politely to speak our language.
p.32 (Picador, 2021)
His preaching in German, allowing the common folk to understand for the first time what was actually being preached at them in church, is the final straw, yet even when summoned by the local dignitaries, our hero uses the opportunity to warn them that their time is over…
It’s an interesting story, and it’s told in an enjoyable manner, a simple tale unfolding, related not so much by an omniscient narrator as by a garrulous acquaintance years afterwards. It’s as if you were being entertained by a friendly stranger by the fire down the pub on a cold winter evening, enjoying a drink or two as your new friend tells his tale with oaths, insults, sarcastic jabs and wry comments:
In his fervour, now being a hair’s breadth from madness, he declared that slavery was a sin. Then he averred that the clergy should take a vow of poverty. After that, to really piss people off, he repudiated transubstantiation as a mental aberration. And as the icing on the cake, his most terrifying idea of all, he preached the equality of all human beings. (p.10)
It’s more akin to horrid histories than your usual text-book non-fiction, and it makes the book slip by quickly and pleasantly enough.
For all that, though, The War of the Poor pretty much *is* non-fiction, and it’s fairly short, too. My edition runs to sixty-six pages, but it reads even shorter than that thanks to a generous font size and line spacing as well as the blank pages between sections. I saw someone claim online that the story comes to just over 10,000 words in total (35-40 pages of a standard book), and while I can’t confirm that (I’m certainly not going to count them…), it doesn’t seem far off.
Given the brevity of the tale, then, you’d expect it to be a tightly structured affair, with every word used wisely, but again you’d be mistaken. Vuillard doesn’t see the need to confine himself to Müntzer’s life, and once he’s introduced his hero, he embarks on a considerable tangent summarising other uprisings in history, most from 14th-century England. After twelve pages on this, and a few pages spent in Prague with Jan Hus, we eventually find ourselves back with Müntzer, meaning there isn’t actually that much time to build up the rebellion before its inevitable failure.
Still, there’s lots to like here, even if you suspect that Müntzer’s life, and the battle that marked his downfall, deserve more than to be shoe-horned into a story you could finish in about half-an-hour if you were in a hurry. The War of the Poor is yet another story of the rich oppressing the worse-off, showing how any attempt to tip the balance, even in the slightest, will invariably bring out the worst in those in power. Yet, little by little, inch by inch, the rights of those at the bottom do improve, with Müntzer just one of many who push this slow movement along, and even if this particular uprising had a disastrous ending, it’s not always the case – as many football fans could testify 😉
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m going to answer this question in two parts.
1) I quite enjoyed The War of the Poor, and while it wasn’t the most taxing of reads (and certainly far from the longest), there was a lot to enjoy, including Vuillard’s breezy style and the intriguing story of yet another misguided rebel with a cause (but without much of a plan). I’d certainly be happy to recommend it to anyone with a little spare time on their hands.
2) Nevertheless, it should never have come within a million miles of the longlist, let alone the shortlist. This is basically an overblown short-story-cum-essay, a pamphlet trying to summarise what could have been a full-blown epic novel, and when you think of all the great books out there, it’s a mystery why the judges opted for this one. It’s certainly not the writer’s fault that his flyweight work was entered in a heavyweight contest – which takes us to the next question…
Why did it make the shortlist?
Well, your guess is as good as mine, frankly. I suspect that this book has been fiercely championed by one of the five official judges, and through their determination and charisma they’ve somehow managed to hoodwink their colleagues and sneak Vuillard’s essay onto the shortlist.
If anyone has any other answers to my question, please leave them in the usual place – this one really is a head-scratcher…
Having somehow managed to evade the soldiers rounding up the stragglers, we’re off again, swapping sixteenth-century Germany for some more modern, and comfortable, locations. That doesn’t mean this week’s history lessons are over, though – far from it. Our next stop will see us confronting some rather complex dilemmas as we confront the big question in life – what’s it all about? Never mind if you don’t really understand – I suspect that’s the point. The problem comes when we carry on despite not understanding…