All written in the mid-twentieth century the following novels, although originally written in varying languages – English, French, and Serbo-Croatian, spanning three continents and even more countries – the United States, France, South Africa and Bosnia, share some important similarities. The following novels would make terrible summer reading. They are not books with which to relax in the warm sun under the shade of your patio furniture in the backyard, or lightly skim as you dig your toes in the sand on your family vacation. They are slow-moving, difficult, reflective books requiring readers to digest them slowly. They are not feel-good reads for a light, breezy day. Strange that I find myself reflecting on them at this time of year? Not really. Once my boys’ history and science, math and grammar are put away for the year, my mind is freer to explore my own thoughts. And, apparently, this June that means death and priests, philosophy and apartheid.
The following are four novels to compare and contrast. They share some weighty themes and interesting literary emphases.
Death Comes for the Archbishopop by the American writer Willa Cather was originally published in 1927. It recounts the tale of two Catholic priests in the hills of New Mexico territory in 1851 who battle arid deserts, ancient customs and their own vices and loneliness.
The Diary of a Country Priest was written by Georges Bernanos in 1937. It is an ambitious novel with a seemingly unambitious plot. A French priest finds himself caring for very mundane, prosaic parishioners in an ordinary French village. These parishioners are mean gossipers, fault finders and antagonistic. The priest is confronted with the need to forgive and be forgiven, even as he knows he is dying.
The South African classic Cry, the Beloved Country by the late Alan Paton did not immediately end apartheid when it was published in 1948, but it certainly spurred on the dialog which forged its path. Written primarily from the perspective of an aging Zulu pastor, this novel deals with race-relations, ethnicities, murder, forgiveness, healing and our human dignity before God.
Published in 1966, in what was then known as Yugoslavia, Mesa Selimovic wrote his best known novel, Death and the Dervish. It is unfortunate that the Bosnian writer is little known in the United States, as this book not only enlightens the reader to the region’s history and psychology, but also deals in relatable, contemporary themes. Throughout its pages a Moslem dervish from the eighteenth century is in search of his brother who has been arrested by the Turkish authorities. Enmeshed in their lies, he begins to question his own purpose and his place in society.
Each of these novels is deeply philosophical, spiritual, and fundamentally asks difficult questions about humanity’s purpose and direction. Each of them uniquely deals with social justice.
We shift our ground again when a black man does achieve something remarkable, and then feel deep pity for a man who is condemned to the loneliness of being remarkable, and decide that it is a Christian kindness not to let black men become remarkable. Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.
from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 155
In each novel someone is intervening in someone else’s behalf. Father for a wayward son, a brother for an estranged brother. The protagonist is a priest – or in one case a dervish – a spiritual leader who finds himself vulnerable and in need of being led.
Monks suffer for souls, our pain is on behalf of souls. This thought came to me yesterday evening and remained all night long beside my bed, a guardian angel.
from The Diary of a Country Priest, p. 28
Every one of these novels are political in varying degrees. They do not feature characters inspiring coups, but quietly, desperately searching for a better, more peaceable life, free from foreign rule.
In each novel there is a struggle with authority. There is a tension between races. There is a grave injustice and there is suffering. Death is a prominent theme in each novel, as well as forgiveness.
I’ve done something bad to him…I needed his friendship, like air, but I was ready to lose it because I couldn’t hide that lie from him. I wanted him to forgive me, but he did even more: he gave me still greater love…Most beautiful is that his love doesn’t even need to be earned. If I’d had to earn it I’d never have received it, or I’d have lost it long ago.
from Death and the Dervish, pp. 271-272
My death is here. A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feelings of a very commonplace, very ordinary man. It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life. I shall be just as clumsy and awkward…Dear God, I give you all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give, I just let them take. The best is to remain quiet. Because though I may not know how to give, You know how to take…Yet I would have wished to be, once, just once, magnificently generous to You!
from The Diary of a Country Priest, pp. 279-280
Far away from large cities, these stories are rural, primarily set in villages, far removed from fast-paced, sophisticated worlds. And so the pace of the novels are slow, sometimes plodding, thoughtful to the point that the plots are frequently moved along by the dialog.
These are novels inextricably tied to land or place, filled with beautiful imagery and lush language.
It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it. The Hopi villages that were set upon rock mesas were made to look like the rock on which they sat, were imperceptible at a distance.
from Death Comes for the Archbishop, p. 233
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing to it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke…About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld.
from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 3
The geography and time period are characters themselves as significant and pivotal as any others in the novel. They are bound to the soil on which they tread, to the people and languages with which they speak. Bosnia, the American Southwest, bucolic France, and South Africa are more than mere backdrops. They imbue meaning and urgency to these stories. Although each novel is set in a different time period, there is an amazing timelessness in their themes.
These are all spiritual struggles. The Bible and the Koran are liberally referenced and quoted.
A beautiful word is like a tree, its roots are deep in the ground, its branches rise up to the sky.
~from Death and the Dervish, p. 310 quoting The Koran, Sura xiv, 24
On the day of my death, when they carry my coffin,
do not think that I will feel pain for this world.
Do not cry and say: it is a great loss!
When milk sours, the loss is greater.
I shall not vanish when you see them lay me in the grave.
Do the sun and moon vanish when they set?
This seems like a death to you, but it is a birth…..
What grain does not sprout when it is put into the ground?
So why do you not believe in the grain of men?
~from Death and the Dervish, p. 12, quoted inexactly from several passages in The Koran
-I have ever thought that a Christian would be free from suffering, umfundisi. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is not life without suffering.
Kumalo looked at his friend with joy. You are a preacher, he said.
His friend held out his rough calloused hands. Do I look like a preacher? he asked.
Kumalo laughed. I look at your heart, not your hands, he said. Thank you for your help, my friend.
from Cry, the Beloved Country, p. 227
Our protagonists seek and find their answers not simply in their own experiences, nor in the advice of their compatriots, but through the lens of spiritual truth and vision.
One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.
~from Death Comes for the Archbishop, p. 50