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Lives of the Saints

No Other Life

by Brian Moore
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 223 pp., $21.00

The lives of the saints make fascinating reading. Saint Patrick, a slave on a lonely Irish mountainside, escaped from his bondage only to find himself overwhelmed by a sacred destiny that was as confining as any serfdom. Converting the people of the island where he had tended sheep, he gave his life to their spiritual well-being, made the locally ubiquitous shamrock the emblem of the Trinity, and rid the land of snakes.

Saint Ursula, child of tenth-century royalty in England, spurned the advances of a pagan king, wishing to remain a virgin, unwed and holy. Granted a generous period of grace, she took to the open sea with ten ladies-in-waiting who in turn were accompanied by a multitude of female servants and companions. For three years they sailed the seas in eleven vessels, until winds blew them up the Rhine to Cologne and on to Basel, where they disembarked, immediately making for Rome to pray at the tombs of the apostles. On the way back, unwilling to deny their Christian faith to godless captors, they were massacred.

Saint Joan left the plough to lead the armies of France. Scavenging dogs turned away from the corpse of Saint Bibiana, fearful of its sanctity. The Blessed Lucy endured a loss of blood through her stigmata every Wednesday and Friday for three years. The twin saints, Cosmas and Damian—moneyless doctors who took no fees for their services—defied death by water, fire, and crucifixion before they were beheaded.

So at least, in all these cases, it is said. There may be some other reason for the absence of snakes in Ireland, and for the fact that shamrock grows wild there while withering on the neighboring island. The voices that told Joan of Arc to save France may have been no more than the voices that today communicate with young schizophrenics. The martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins is treated with reserve in the Roman liturgy. The dogs, when they nosed out poor Saint Bibiana, may have already scavenged their fill that day. Stigmata are not uncommon, nor is the defiance of death.

Yet these saints are venerated. They are real because people have made them so, their long vanished feature alive in the imaginations they nourish, their strength the faith of the faithful, the marvels of their lives an inspiration. And somewhere in the entanglements of exaggeration and myth there is a whispering insistence that human goodness is what matters most of all: however faint, it’s a sound to honor with the benefit of the doubt.

Such goodness, though, is notoriously tricky territory for the fiction writer; trickier still to keep disbelief at bay when saintliness is possibly involved and the miraculous has a part to play. Yet novelists have to take chances and Brian Moore has always prospered by doing so. With the truth as its target, the obsession of the story-teller has repeatedly led him to difficult terrain: hot spots attract him. In his last novel, Lies of Silence, the hellhole he explored was contemporary Northern Ireland, which could certainly do with another visit from Saint Patrick. The grimmest patch in Western Europe, with its gray, thudding helicopters and army check-points, its bloody Sundays and careless murderers, it is a place of lies: “lies told over the years to poor Protestant working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminster who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.”

In Moore’s first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the hell-hole is his heroine’s daily existence. It is riddled with the consoling lies that soften reality for the credulous, and the happy little lies that blossom so warmly after one drink too many. Lost among them, Miss Hearne is as trapped by the ordinary circumstances of her life as the people of Belfast are by the misfortunes of history. And no saint comes to the rescue here, either.

The hot spot of No Other Life is a Caribbean island, corrupt, poverty-stricken, its beach fronts fouled, its priests and its people exploited, the weak and humble easy prey for roving gangs of uniformed bullies. Moore’s Ganae strongly resembles contemporary Haiti, and there are recognizable parallels between Haiti’s recent history and some, at least, of the events that occur in this novel. The warm, bright sunshine of Ganae illuminates nothing; darkness rules, and “the night is never silent. In the slums…there are no cars or trucks and so the noises of night are medieval. Voices quarrel, shout, sing drunken songs. Dogs bark. Roosters, wakened untimely, crow in darkness. Footsteps sound loud in the narrow, filthy streets.”

The population of Ganae is made up of noirs, mulattos, and a few whites, the mulattos being the elite class. Creole and French are spoken, and the local dictator is Doumergue, appearing to the outside world as a meek, well-intentioned black man who has promised to fight illiteracy and provide decent schools. At official audiences in the presidential place his grubby suit doesn’t fit properly, his battered black Homburg is handed apologetically to a bemedaled military aide before he mounts the throne that is the presidential chair. He states himself to be “the living incarnation of the people’s wish to better their lives.” In fact, he is a thug who has no wish to see anyone’s life bettered except his own. Armed with old-fashioned Lee-Enfield rifles, his bleus—similar thugs, who take their title from their blue seersucker overalls—rob and intimidate. The army does what it’s told.

The eyes through which the many images of Ganae under this dictatorship are observed belong to Father Paul Michel, a white Canadian priest who tells the story from the vacuum of retirement, looking back over twenty years to what Brian Moore has else-where called “the moment of crisis,” although in Ganae it is one of many moments, crises being endemic there. One of the last white priests on the island, the last principal of the Collège St. Jean, Father Michel will end his days in a retreat house in Cuba.

He is given, before he goes, instead of a gold watch, a videotape of his long Caribbean sojourn. One of his former students, now the minister for foreign affairs, “praised me in his address for my efforts to bring the benefits of higher education to scholarship students from city slums and rural backwaters.” And it’s natural, Father Michel reflects, mulling over his flickering video at some later time, that one student in particular doesn’t feature in it: Jeannot is best forgotten, best obliterated by simply not being there.

He found him in Doumergue’s time, in a mud shack at the end of a mule track, a thirteen-year-old orphan, small and delicate, in a dirty denim shirt, patched trousers, and wooden-soled clogs. His teacher said he was brilliant; the aunt who looked after him—“a woman with the flayed face and wasted body of those who live on the rim of starvation”—was glad to be rid of that extra mouth to feed. Given into the priest’s care with relief, Jeannot becomes a boarder at the Collège St. Jean.

In time he, too, enters the priesthood, inspired in his vocation by the misery of life in the slums of the town, its “black, swollen heart.” Here, there is more than the poverty he knew among the mule tracks: a stench of sewage, no running water, no electric light, twelve-year-old girls selling themselves on the sidewalks, cripples, deformed children, starving babies, women covered in sores, the blind, the dumb, beggars who have never been anything else and never will be. This is the parish Jeannot chooses. Here he begins his imitation of Christ.

In Father Michel he engenders a father’s pride. “I have failed in most of the things that I set out to do,” the elderly priest confesses, but when the memory returns to him of his protégé offering the Mass in his crowded church, some of that failure dissipates. An old, well-used image of the Church of the Incarnation—as ugly as a garage, with its grim dun-colored walls and rough stucco—lightens his melancholy. It isn’t at all a place where “one would expect to be caught in the magic and mystery of the Mass. And yet as we knelt, looking up at Jeannot, frail and childlike in a surplice that seemed to have been made for someone twice his size, it was as though he led us into a world from which all other worlds were shut out. As he raised the communion chalice, and in that solemn moment changed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we, who watched, were filled with the certainty that he, by the grace of God, performed a miracle at the altar. I, who have said Mass for forty years,…felt that, truly, God had come down among us.”

And there’s the memory, too, that when Jeannot preached it was with a voice so compelling that the congregation was transfixed:

Brothers and sisters.
Today I want to raise you up.
The Church is not far away in Rome.
The Church is not archbishops and popes.
The Church is us—you and I—
And we who are the Church have a duty to speak out…
But I warn you
If you speak out you will receive blows.
St. Paul received blows because he told the truth.
But he endured them.
As you will endure them,
As I will endure them…

The prediction is a sound one. In no time at all the blows are falling as relentlessly as the rain that seasonally mocks the plywood shelters and tinroofed hovels. Shots disturb the Mass in the Church of the Incarnation; blood and death are there, where a moment ago there was peace, and hope. Then two of Doumergue’s gangsters turn their attention to the figure at the altar.

Suddenly, it was as though all of us were figures in a painting, frozen in a frame. Jeannot did not flinch. He stood facing the killers, his arms outstretched as if to embrace them. His face showed love, not fear…. Again the two assassins raised their rifles and fired. They were not more than thirty feet from their target, but the bullets went wide. The upraised arm of a statue to the right of Jeannot shattered and fell on the altar steps.”

The finished priest, alone in old age with his memories and his videotape, might be forgiven if his recall mercifully becomes faulty here. A miracle has occurred. “Mesiah!” the crowd cries out. “Mesiah, Mesiah!” A saint is sanctified while everyone watches, while everyone is a witness. That surely should be the end: let the legends accumulate. In fact, it is only the beginning.

I had long believed,” Father Michel records, “that Jeannot was a saintly person, possibly a saint. If that were true, it was conceivable that God had saved him…. I had seen the assassins miss, firing at close range.”

Whatever he is, however he is protected from on high, Jeannot is a nuisance now. All over the island it is already believed that he is a prophet, that God has sent him to save Ganae. His church is burnt to the ground by Doumergue’s minions, he is censured by his archbishop for continuing to preach his provocative sermons, the papal nuncio orders him to abandon his parish. In his name, the people defy the dictatorship; he himself defies his Church. He believes, with the political priests of South America, that the true Church is the people’s church. “God will avenge us!” is his dangerous rallying cry.

Two processes occur in the making of a novel, either simultaneously or consecutively, depending upon the novelist’s idiosyncrasy and method. There is the creation of raw material—events and people gathered together in as higgledy-piggledy a muddle as they are in life—and the ordering of this accumulation, the trimming and shaping so that it takes the form of a story. In No Other Life, before the destruction of Jeannot’s church, Moore concentrates on establishing an authenticity, a feeling of documentary or newspaper reportage. His backdrop is cunningly detailed so that it becomes believably snagged in the reader’s imagination, and it is firmly in place before he permits his storyteller’s curiosity to poke about in the world that is the backdrop’s extension, before the search for truth begins in the make-up of fiction.

The action of this novel seems almost to write itself, but this impression is a deceptive one. Smoothly, quietly, everything is managed, and the puppet-master’s strings aren’t visible for an instant. Jeannot’s sermons become speeches:

One hot meal a week.
Yes, that is what the people eat in Cap Nord and Cap Sud…
Work all day in the fields and come home to eat plantains at night.
But here in Port Riche.
What do the rich eat?
The rich who hold power thanks to the generals.
What do they eat?
Fine French food. Imported meats.
What do they drink?
Fine French wine. Champagne.

But you have power too, Jeannot reminds the people who are increasingly his. Act, he urges them; but before they can do so Ganae’s dictator dies. Immediately there is an opportunity for the revolution to be a bloodless one. For the first time in the island’s history there can be democratic elections; and even though the Pope has forbidden priests to run for political office, Jeannot is persuaded to offer himself as the next president. Overwhelmingly he is voted in.

It is then that the bit-part player, Father Michel, begins to shed his peripheral role. The fiery young president inaugurates his program of reform, but the teacher-priest who led him by the hand from his mountain desert, who awoke in him an awareness of the ugly status quo, has to answer now for the turmoil that freedom and justice trail in their wake. It is he who is summoned to Rome, to explain, if he can, the disobedience of his protégé.

Father Michel travels, as well, to Canada, where his mother is dying. She is an old woman who has prayed diligently all her life, who has unwaveringly believed in God and the Church, and in her own immortal soul. Now, sensing the odor of death, as the dying are said to, she believes that no heaven awaits her, that nothing does. “You…have wasted your life,” she sorrowfully chides her son, “telling people something which isn’t true.”

Is this some cruel senility speaking, or has the odor of death brought the truth with it? Is the firebrand who now rules Ganae right to insist that politics make more sense than priests? Is he right, while personally helping to clean the streets of years of filth, to insist that the priestly life without politics, without action, is nothing? Trapped between the denials of two generations in two different places and in different circumstances, Father Michel feels lost. Are his mother’s children and grandchildren the only continuation of her life? Is the man he loves as a son inspired by vengeance for the past as much as by hope for the future? Everywhere there are questions without answers.

Yet as he listens to Jeannot’s radio speeches as once he listened to his sermons, he still wonders if this is how the voice of a hated agitator was once heard in a remote province of the Roman Empire. A rabble-rousing, fanatical president Jeannot may be, but no one could call him evil, as his predecessor was. He is foolish, He is politically naive. His boys are the new bleus. Suspicious of a parliament to which, as yet, they owe no gratitude, the president’s followers demonstrate against it and would prefer the dictatorship of the leader they trust. “Justice time” is the expression used, and there is killing again in Ganae. Yet somehow, Father Michel believes, it may all come right.

Peering back from the shadows to that particular time, he sees that it never did. Things fell apart, again, in Ganae. The saint whose destiny he was certain about was an ersatz saint, flawed because he did not possess the gift of wisdom. When, in turn, Jeannot was deposed he was led back to obscurity by his childhood rescuer and the two passed through a village in which a wake was in progress. More vivid than anything on Father Michel’s videotape, there is the remembered image of the dead man—another victim of politics—seated at a table in his best clothes, an unlit cigarette drooping from his lips, an old fedora jauntily on his head. There were drums and a mandoline that day, a wreath of frangipani and red immortelles. Grouped around the upright corpse, the mourners ceased their chanting dirge when they recognized the fleeing Jeannot. They touched his clothes, and wept, and smiled, and bowed in holy veneration.

The cry of joy—“C’e Mesiah! C’e Mesiah!“—heard then for the last time in Ganae, and absent of course from Father Michel’s videotape—mocks him from his more truthful memory. As does the girl he once desired on a street somewhere, and the face of another girl, and the mulatto beauty he desired in middle age, and his mother dying. Such uneasy images and echoes are what kept him company, but at least they’re better than the official lies of silence.

For the elderly priest pondering his life, there is no pattern, no gleam of illumination in his weariness, only confusion and bewilderment, and his own wild thought that, yes, perhaps his mother was right. In the midst of so much distortion, so much misreading of diving promise and intention, it seems more likely now that eternal life can only be begged for, and is not guaranteed. He can be sure only of the story he tells, of the saint that never was and the drama of an innocence that ignominiously failed, leaving behind even less meaning than there appeared to be originally.

No Other Life is a beguiling, marvelously readable account of a good priest’s vocation. As all successful novels do, it reverberates and haunts, its intensity lingering long after the book has come to an end. Brian Moore has written nothing as subtle, or as perfectly sustained.

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