Before Seinfeld, before Murphy’s Law, there was Voltaire’s Candide. In stark contrast to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where “everything is awesome,” to quote The Lego Movie, Candide’s world is a string of executions, STDs, natural disasters, wars, rapes, killings and financial disasters. And this is what his tutor Pangloss calls “the best of all possible worlds.” Everything about this philosophical tale contrasts with Siddhartha, even the colour of the cover whose juicy purple is diametrically opposite Siddhartha’s fluorescent yellow. The Penguin Drop Caps edition has a V on the front cover formed by two bolts of lightning, converging to strike a little yellow man. Yep, that’s Candide, for whom whatever can go wrong does go wrong.
I was a little nervous about plunging into what I thought would be a heavy philosophical satire, so before reading the Penguin Drop Caps edition, I borrowed the three-volume graphic novel from our school library (covers pictured below). Big mistake. Candide is so R-rated for violence, including sexual violence, I was appalled at the gore and rape and disfigurements I was looking at, though I quickly got the gist of the story. Then I borrowed the audiobook, read perfectly by Jean Topart, from the public library and realized, as usual, technique is more important than content. In reality, Voltaire skips and hops from one tragedy to another in a lighthearted way. Having listened to the original version, I can tell you that Theo Cuffe’s translation captures Voltaire’s style to a fault. While it may not always sound authentically English in vocabulary or syntax, it is a most faithful translation.
Candide is really about the pursuit of happiness. How do we live in a world that is full of trouble? Trouble brought on by ourselves, by others, by Church, by State, by Nature? How can we be happy when we seem to have so little control over our own lives? At its heart, Voltaire’s question is a practical one. He is less interested in why things are so bad than how to survive in the midst of the mess.
I enjoyed three things in reading Candide. First, the characters’ names are usually plays on words. Candide is, of course, candid and honest to such a degree that he is naïve and gullible. His tutor’s name, Pangloss, means all tongues or all languages, which I take to be Voltaire accusing people everywhere of a pie-in-the-sky attitude to life. Cunégonde is a pun on the French and Latin words for women’s genitalia. The Marquise of Parolignac—are her paroles ignorantes— are her words ignorant? If paquet is French slang for men’s genitalia, then Paquette, the feminine form, is an aptly named prostitute. Pococurante means “little care”—and he’s a character who cares little for anything and anyone.
Another thing I loved was the pot shots at everyone. No one, except possibly the Dutch Manichean Martin and the cynical Cacambo, is spared his scathing criticism. Jesuits and Anabaptists, Jews and Catholics, soldiers and publishers, Germans, English, Eastern Europeans, Italians and, most of all, Parisians, come under fire. Everyone is portrayed as capricious, close-minded, power- and money-grubbing and downright unreasonable and yet, remarkably, all Voltaire is doing is holding a mirror to the world. Even though this is satire, the subtitle could have been, “Based on many true stories.” Nothing is exaggerated, merely condensed.
I also love Voltaire’s rapid pacing of the novel. It’s divided into thirty chapters, each very short, and he speeds his characters all over the world through many different experiences with impressive economy of language. So it is that we follow Candide from a castle in Germany, to post-earthquake Lisbon, to Spain under the Inquisition, to South America under the Jesuits, to El Dorado, where things really do seem to be going well. From El Dorado, loaded with what the locals consider worthless pebbles but what the Europeans consider precious stones, Candide goes from Surinam to France, to England, to Venice and finally ends up in Turkey. Voltaire has shown me that you can move your characters around like toy cars on a play mat without confusing your readers. I tend to describe every movement of my characters, as if they’re walking around with GoPros strapped to their foreheads.
Anyway, by the second last chapter of the story, Candide has picked up (or ransomed) a band of followers and has been reunited with his darling Cunégonde. But instead of living happily ever after on their plot of land, free from persecution and deprivation, they are stuck in a philosophical tug-of-war. “Martin in particular came to the conclusion that man was born to endure either the convulsions of anxiety or the lethargy of boredom,” while Pangloss, “having once maintained that everything was going splendidly would continue to do so while believing nothing of the kind.” (p. 211). And back and forth they go until they meet a Muslim farmer who, though possessing only twenty acres, lives more comfortably than anyone they’ve met so far outside of El Dorado. A lightbulb goes on in their minds and Pangloss, Martin and Candide finally agree that work is the answer. The story ends with the now-famous quote, “We must cultivate our garden.”
Though Voltaire denounced Christianity as the most ridiculous, absurd and bloody religion ever to exist, I found his conclusion to be not unBiblical. The message of Candide is that, while suffering is inevitable, work keeps away the three evils of boredom, vice and want. To me, this is excellent advice. Though I understand why Voltaire came to view Christianity in such a bad light, my own optimism comes from my Christian beliefs that though the world is in the terrible state he accurately describes, it wasn’t always so and it won’t always be so. But, in the meantime, yes, we must cultivate our garden.
If you’re in the mood for something hilariously nihilistic and you’ve had enough of Seinfeld reruns, have a go at Voltaire’s Candide. I’m optimistic you’ll enjoy it.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!