Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the last book I read

The Office Of Innocence by Thomas Keneally.

Father Frank Darragh is a rookie Catholic priest in suburban Sydney. It's 1942, so in addition to the usual presiding over mass, handing out communion and receiving confessions from bored housewives and furtive teenage masturbators, there are more serious concerns to think about, not least the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion. In the hope of preventing this from happening there is a sizeable contingent of American military personnel knocking around - trouble is, this situation causes a few problems in itself - mainly the same sort of problems the American GIs caused in Europe with their ready supply of nylons, chewing gum and cigarettes, the swines.

Here's an example of the sort of moral dilemma this creates: you're a young wife with a young child, your husband is away fighting and you've received word he's been taken prisoner. So with no guarantee you'll ever see him again, when an American officer takes an interest in you and casually lobs a few gifts around, do you play along a bit for the sake of the child, or rigidly guard your "honour"? Darragh's parishioner Kate Heggarty is faced with precisely this scenario, and while she's sufficiently troubled by it to consult her parish priest for advice, she's stubborn enough to refuse to guarantee that she'll favour rigid notions of right and wrong over pragmatism. So she's young, attractive, slightly tragic, and feisty with it, and Darragh finds himself drawn to her in a way not really appropriate for a Catholic priest. So he finds himself in an odd position when she is murdered, presumably by the aforementioned suitor.

Mind you, trademark Catholic guilt and anguish aside Darragh has a few other things to think about that don't necessarily tally with the standard teaching material in the Catholic seminary - a fellow novice priest who confesses to indiscretions with small boys and runs off to join the army, a black deserter who Darragh helps to bring to justice (though it's unclear just how just that justice will be) and a strangely amicable ménage à trois being conducted with all three protagonists living under the same roof. You know, it's almost as if the rigid and inflexible moral system taught in the Catholic seminary is hopelessly inadequate and ill-suited to the rich and spicy moral ambiguities and compromises of the real world.

As if this wasn't all difficult enough, religious and secular morality come into further conflict when Kate Heggarty's murderer (one Sergeant Fratelli) confesses to the crime - canon law dictates that Darragh can't pass on any of this information on to the authorities. Fortunately (in a way) when Darragh meets Fratelli in a dockside bar to persuade him to hand himself in and they're interrupted by a Japanese attack on the harbour, Fratelli takes it upon himself to try and strangle Darragh down a back alley, thereby giving himself away a bit and, once a rescue has been performed, resulting in his arrest and subsequent execution. Meanwhile Darragh, who has become intolerably boat-rockingly troublesome to the Catholic hierarchy, is sent away to recuperate and retaliates by enlisting in the army as a medical orderly and getting himself posted to New Guinea.

Like Our Lady Of The Forest this is a book whose message will inevitably be viewed through the distorting prism of one's own preconceptions regarding religion: is Darragh's escape into the jungle a much-needed period of contemplation and acceptance of the ineffable mysteriousness of God's purpose before joyfully returning to the fold, or the first stirrings of throwing off the shackles of the nonsense he's been indoctrinated with all his life? I know what I'd like to think, naturally. There are faint echoes of Graham Greene here as well, most obviously The Power And The Glory, though without quite the same level of agonised liquor-soaked moral complexity and despair. That it's a bit more strightforward than that isn't necessarily a criticism, though; this works as a pretty gripping wartime thriller as well, a sort of Antipodean Island Madness if you will.

Keneally is most famous for winning the Booker prize in 1982 with Schindler's Ark (later retitled Schindler's List to avoid confusing cinema-goers), but the only other book of his I've read is the earlier, angrier The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (as mentioned in passing here and here).

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