Candide, the title character, is a young German growing up in a luxurious country house when he is beaten and thrown out for innocently flirting with the daughter of the house, Cunegonde. In the next thirty chapters, Candide travels half-way around the world, accompanied by a variety of fellow unfortunates, most of whom disappear and reappear in slightly unbelieveable circumstances. After traipsing round most of the civilised world (but not Australia - unsurprising for the mid-eighteenth century, but disappointing nonetheless) and winning (then blowing) his fortune, the young Westphalien ends up in Constantinople with his team of faithful retainers, comitted to a life of cultivating his garden.
The book is actually Voltaire's response to various philosophical theories and literary critics of the time, and most of the events and characters are related to this concept. Pangloss, Candide's first teacher and mentor, believes that everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, but Candide's experiences in his journey around the globe gradually lead him to become disillusioned with this view of life. Martin, an unfortunate who is chosen by Candide to accompany him back to Europe after his spell in South America, is much more of a cynic, and it is he who is proven by events (and people) to be more in tune with the ways of the world.
The peripheral characters serve to demonstrate the wisdom (or folly) of the philosophical principles. Happiness is nowhere to be found when Candide and Martin return to Europe, and every time that the young German thinks he has found someone who is happy, it turns out that their lives are wretched and that Martin, once again, is right. Cunegonde's brother, who Candide meets again twice (and kills once - not when you might think either...), refuses to accept Candide's pursuit of his sister, despite all that the hero has done for the family. He is not the only character who refuses to accept the reality of the world and wishes to ignore what is actually there.
Nevertheless, at the end of the book (despite having to marry a sweetheart who is no longer quite so sweet - both on the inside and the outside...), Candide does seem to have found a kind of happiness and a purpose to life. In the words of Voltaire, to be happy in this life, "il faut cultiver notre jardin". This simple statement can be interpreted in several ways:
1) As is related in the Bible, man was created to serve God and was put into the Garden of Eden to improve God's work and make life there as good as it can be (a very Panglossian approach).
2) The devil really does make work for idle hands to do, so it is necessary for people to find an occupation if their lives are to be meaningful and they are to avoid the temptation of sin (perhaps a critique of the idle nobility, of whom Cunegonde's brother is a prime example).
3) Gardening is a great way to spend your free time, and it also helps you to save on your grocery bills (not quite so profound, but every bit as meaningful; I'm sure Voltaire would have approved).
Without delving deeply into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical treatises, it is impossible to understand every nuance of the scenes sketched out in this novel (controversial in its time for bringing fiction into the sphere of prose); however, it's also very enjoyable just read as a parody of the trashy literature of the time. The style of writing is very tongue-in-cheek, coincidences abound (the book is a little 'I Know What You Did Last Summer'esque for the number of people you could have sworn were dead but...), and no ethnic, social or religious group is free from the satire. Apart from the Australians, of course.
The other main reason I enjoyed the novel though, was that I read it in French (the only use I now have for my Bachelor's Degree - four years at the expense of the taxpayer well spent). For those of you who can speak the language fairly well, it is a surprisingly easy book to read, especially if you have an annotated study edition, as I have. There were a few sticky moments here and there, but, judging by the footnotes, many of those may have caused problems for modern French speakers as well.
All in all then, 'Candide' may not be the best of all novels in the best of all possible worlds, but it is a great way to practice your French and entertain yourself at the same time (for those who aren't that into gardening, anyway). And the llamas? Well, I'm not going to reveal everything; you'll just have to read it for yourself...