A candid view of Candide

Julian Barnes in Guardian:

Quentin-Blake-illustratio-007 Just as it's a fair bet that Borges's famous summing-up of the Falklands war – “two bald men quarrelling over a comb” – will outlast in the public memory details of the actual events, so the four crunch words used by Voltaire to characterise Admiral Byng's death have endured better than the actual rights and wrongs of the matter. Voltaire's treatment of the case has a sharper edge to it because during his two-year exile in England (1726-28) he had known Byng as a young navy captain; 30 years later, despite their two countries being at war, he intervened (even taking an affidavit from the opposing French admiral) in an attempt to save the Englishman from execution. In the novel, Candide, having tired of the wit and corruption of France, arrives at Portsmouth on a Dutch ship from Dieppe. “You are acquainted with England,” he says to his travelling companion Martin, “are they as great fools in that country, as in France?” “Yes, but in a different manner,” replies Martin, citing the two countries' current squabble over “a few acres of snow” in Canada. As their ship docks, they observe a kneeling, blindfolded figure on the deck of a man-of-war. Candide enquires about the matter. He is told that an English admiral is being punished “because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death”; the court has found that in an engagement with the French admiral, “He was not near enough to his antagonist.” “But,” Candide replies, with an innocent's logic, “the French admiral must have been just as far from him.” True, comes the reply, “But in this country it is found requisite, now and then, to put one admiral to death, pour encourager les autres.”

More here.