Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Catholic fiction from across the world

As I have written elsewhere, we might like to think that, as Catholics, we are particularly aware of the need for catholicity but, in truth, we are as likely as anyone else to become parochial the moment we step inside a bookshop.

Part of the problem is a lack of translations. Many excellent Catholic writers, like the Argentinean novelist Manuel Gálvez, are almost unknown outside their own countries. Almost fifty years after his death, Gálvez’s work is now beginning to be re-evaluated but other authors have been less fortunate.

The great Chinese writer and critic, Su Xuelin, for example, found herself effectively marginalised as a woman, an anti-Communist and a Catholic after the Communist victory in 1949. Even today much of her work – like Ji Xin, a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s conversion to Catholicism – remains out of print and untranslated.

Even when authors do manage to find translators, their more explicitly Catholic works are often neglected. Japan’s leading Catholic novelist, Ayako Sono, has had two of her novels translated into English but her non-fiction book about St. Maximilian Kolbe can still be read only in Japanese, despite its being described as a “minor classic” by the renowned critic and translator, J. Philip Gabriel.

And so we could go on. Catholics from around the world languish in untranslated neglect because are neither fashionable enough nor secular enough to break into the publishing mainstream.

However, this is not the whole story: there are plenty of Catholic writers from Japan to Trinidad, from Indonesia to Nigeria, whose books have either been translated or were written in English in the first place.

Uwem Akpan, for example, is not the first African priest to have written fiction but, writing in English, he has received more international plaudits than any of those who have gone before him.

Patrick Chakaipa, who was head of the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe until his death in 2003, may have been the leading Shona novelist of his age but his works have remained virtually untranslated. Akpan, by contrast, has received rave reviews from, among others, the New Yorker, the Sunday Times and the Guardian.

Willi Chen, a Trinidadian of Chinese descent, is another remarkable Catholic to have written in English. A baker, painter and church designer, as well as an author, Chen is about to publish his third collection of short stories.

Chen may not have the same range as Akpan but he too does not shy away from contemporary problems. Chutney Power and Other Stories, his second and more obviously Catholic collection, deals with everything from family breakdown to rape and murder.

However, the prevailing tone, largely established by the exuberant use of language, is celebratory, especially in the Christmas stories. Reconciliation and a love of life are never far from the surface of Chen’s work.

By writing in English, Akpan and Chen have gained at least some exposure in this country. Asian Catholics, by contrast, have suffered from severe publishing neglect.

The remarkable Indonesian priest, novelist, architect and political activist, Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya, for example, wrote eight novels but only two of them - The Weaverbirds and Durga Umayi – have been translated into English.

The former deals with the Indonesian revolution in a relatively conventional style while the latter, by contrast, is an avant garde tour de force. Mangunwijaya was a major force in his own country but he is hardly known in the Anglophone world.

The situation in Japan is not much better. Despite only a tiny percentage of the population being Catholic, there have been an amazing number of Catholic authors in the last hundred years. However, with the exception of Shusaku Endo, they are virtually unknown in the West.

Part of the reason, admittedly, is because reading their work is rarely a comfortable experience. For example, Toshio Shimao’s most powerful – and, in many ways, most Catholic – stories revolve around his marital infidelity and his wife’s subsequent mental breakdown.

However, out of the darkness of these experiences, which are described in excruciating detail in the “sick wife” stories, Toshio Shimao found redemption in Catholicism and began to believe that “my wife was God’s way of testing me. I could not see God; what I saw was my wife.”

The only two of Ayako Sono’s novels to have been translated into English, The Watcher from the Shore (literally God’s Soiled Hand in the original Japanese) and No Reason for Murder, are similarly challenging. The former deals with abortion and the latter features a serial murderer.

Like Job, Ayako Sono often finds God to be elusive and enigmatic and so much of her work focuses on a very human search for the divine in apparently unpromising circumstances.

After mass murder, abortion and mental illness, it would seem counter-intuitive to turn to nuclear warfare for inspiration but perhaps the most hopeful and inspiring works to have emerged in Japanese Catholic literature in the last hundred years came out of the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

One of the survivors of the bombing of Japan’s most Catholic city was a remarkable radiologist, Takashi Nagai. In The Bells of Nagasaki Nagai describes the moments immediately before and the days after the explosion.

He writes as a scientist, a doctor and a patriot, dealing with the impact of the bomb on individuals and on the community he served in a disconcertingly calm and measured manner.

There is much to challenge western readers in The Bells of Nagasaki, the author’s description of the bombing as “something beautiful, something pure, something sublime” being the most obvious.

For Nagai, the bomb created the last in a long line of Nagasaki martyrs who, through their sacrifice, brought “peace to the world and freedom of religion to Japan.” It is not a comfortable vision but, given Nagai’s personal expertise, humility and sheer goodness, it is a vision that demands to be taken seriously. 

There are other books that look at the bombing of Nagasaki from a Catholic perspective – Chikao Tanaka’s The Head of Mary, for example – but Nagai’s is a classic.

Among all the books by Japanese Catholics which deal with the horrors of the twentieth century, The Bells of Nagasaki is the one which offers perhaps the most authentically Catholic vision of faith, hope and love.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Graham Greene - 'The Ministry of Fear'

I'm with Flannery O'Connor in thinking that "the question of what effect the Church has on the fiction writer who is a Catholic cannot always be answered by pointing to the presence of Graham Greene among us."

Nevertheless, as recent writings remind us (here and here), he cannot be wholly ignored either. One book which often gets lost in discussions about his work and which is worth revisiting is The Ministry of Fear which begins with Arthur Rowe, a convicted murderer, popping into a fête during the darkest days of the London blitz only to be drawn into contact with a Nazi spy ring.

Greene called his novel an ‘entertainment’ but it is clearly much more than that. Despite creating one or two implausible moments in the plot, Greene draws us into the action from the very first pages and doesn’t let us go. The descriptive writing is tremendous and the sense of fear is utterly palpable.
What is more, there are big existential questions too. Rowe is haunted by guilt and confused by pity. While everyone else believes that the death of his wife was a mercy killing, Rowe himself accepts the fact that he is a murderer, though he cannot quite come to terms with the psychological implications. He is a man who, while fleeing for his life, is also desperately seeking redemption and, having fallen from grace, is haunted by memories of his own personal Garden of Eden. It is no surprise then that he book is packed full of references to gardens, usually from his innocent childhood.
Greene also returns time and again to the notion of fiction and its relationship with real life in his novel. Pre-war sentimental novels, he suggests, have to give way to thrillers precisely because the Second World War has lifted the lid on human depravity: “thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine,” Rowe tells his mother in a dream. “This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.”

In other words, there is plenty of literary interest in this thriller, which makes it an ideal book for classroom use. But how Catholic is it?

When Arthur Rowe eventually finds redemption, it is hardly a Catholic concept he embraces: he atones for his wife’s murder, he believes, by suffering for his new lover. This idea may be derived from Rowe’s own Catholic beliefs but it hardly does justice to the orthodox Catholic understanding of the redemption. We have to be careful, of course. Greene once pointed out that “the ideas of my Catholic characters, even their Catholic ideas, were not necessarily mine.” Nevertheless, it is also true that, to use wholly anachronistic terms, Arthur Rowe finds the redemption he seeks having committed euthanasia by assisting in a suicide.

Sin and redemption feature prominently in this novel, just as they do in so many of Greene's other books, but Christ scarcely gets a look in. In the end this is a novel which draws as much on a worldview associated with Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy as it does on Catholic sources. Greene also draws upon the Henry James of The Golden Bowl in having Arthur Rowe and Anna Hilfe sustain their love through mutual deception at the end of the book. In one sense, there is no problem with this - it gives students plenty to get their teeth into - but we do need to be clear about what we are serving up.

Brilliant writing, an exhilarating plot and dodgy theology: you know what you’re going to get from Graham Greene and in The Ministry of Fear he gives you the lot.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Maritain and Flannery O'Connor

If you are studying Flannery O'Connor or Thomas Merton, to name but two, then it's probably worth having a look at Maritain's Art and Scholasticism  which influenced them both. It's also well worth reading even if you're not studying O'Connor or Merton.

If you want to know what Rowan Williams had to say about Maritain and O'Connor in his Clark Lectures at Cambridge then click here.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Muriel Spark - 'Symposium' and other novels

Muriel Spark is an absolute godsend for English teachers. Her novels are (really) short, (usually) funny and (always) thought-provoking.

The most well-known of her 22 novels is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but Spark does not deserve to be remembered as a one-book wonder. She was, in fact, one of the most innovative and quirky novelists of the 20th Century. However, perhaps more than any other novelist of her age, she suffered from her determination not to be labelled. Writing about everything from desert island castaways to convents, from Lord Lucan to finishing schools, Spark always kept her readers guessing about what was coming next.

This same variety can be seen within individual novels too. Symposium, for example, is part comedy, part tragedy, part murder-mystery and part philosophical entertainment. There are sections, such as the chapter that deals with the sometimes foulmouthed, Marxist, Anglican nuns of the convent of Mary of Good Hope, which are sheer comic genius and there are others which dwell, more disturbingly, on the nature of evil.

The plot revolves around a dinner party in a fashionable part of London - part of the joke is that the classical symposium has been reduced to this - but the reader is left guessing for much of the book about which of the various guests and servants are really important. Only gradually does it become apparent that murder is afoot and only gradually does the narrator focus on one of the guests in particular, though it remains far from certain how much responsibility even this character has for any of the deaths and disappearances that soon litter the narrative.

What John Lanchester says in his excellent introduction to The Driver's Seat could equally well apply here: "Her stories always pose a set of questions. In the course of the novel most of them are resolved ... But once we have the answer, the larger sense of mystery and strangeness in the book always remain, and we are left with a lingering sense that the question we've had answered somehow misses a larger point."

In fact, what we discover the more we read is that Spark is playing with us. Just as her characters struggle to explain the deaths, so too do we struggle to piece together the clues we have been given. As in so many of Spark's novels, the relationship between the omniscient narrator and the characters mimics the relationship between God and his creatures. There is free will but the characters often fail to realise either how free they are or in what ways their freedom is bound up in the greater freedom of the novelist herself.

In The Finishing School, for example, an aspiring author says: "my characters are so real, so very real. They have souls. If you are writing a novel from the heart you have to deal with hearts and souls. The people you create are people. You can't control people just like that. Chris is writing a novel where he controls people." 

We see something similar in The Driver's Seat where the narrator quite happily tells us what is going to happen next but also refuses to look into her characters' minds: "Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?" she asks disarmingly at one point.

The contrast with Jean Brodie who "thinks she is Providence, thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end" could not be clearer.

What we get in Symposium then is a novel in which issues of guilt, responsibility, madness and predestination are raised, played around with, and then (apparently) discarded. Most of the murders remain unsolved and the would-be murderer is thwarted by more efficient criminals who get there before she does. All this makes Symposium sound heavy-going but nothing could be further from the truth. The pace is fast, the dialogue witty and the comedy sure-footed. This is a novel to enjoy and the good news is that there are plenty more novels where this one came from.