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Like the institution that suffuses its mise en scène, the modern Catholic novel takes variegated form—the lunatic iconoclasm of Tom McHale’s Farragan’s Retreat; the backstage-at-the-sacristy wryness of John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions; the whiskey priests invented and reinvented by Graham Greene in a series of books and refined by Robert Stone in A Flag for Sunrise—but tends to cleave to a central theme: the difficulty unto impossibility of reconciling faith with reality, and all the contradictions implicit in that task.
Those contradictions fill a well deep and wide, which is why a talented writer like Brian Moore can visit it again and again, each time bringing up a bucket brimful with rich prose, engaging characters, and thought-provoking narrative. Circumstance probably helps Moore; he hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. There, contradiction is a way of life, the hardness of which is softened by those who know how to employ language like an overcoat to warm the heart, or a sword to pierce it.
Moore’s first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, was published in 1956. By the arrival of 1972’s Catholics, about a post-Vatican II church’s attempt to impose ecumenism on an island-bound Irish sect intent on practicing the old rites the old way, Moore, who emigrated to Canada as a young man and later moved to the U.S., already had touched on Catholic anxieties through half a dozen novels. Moore titled the third of what has become his list of 19 books An Answer From Limbo—not the pole-dodging Caribbean dance, but the lambent not-quite-heaven/not-quite hell to which the souls of the unbaptized were said to have traveled before the Unitarianization of Catholic doctrine eliminated that fuzzily pleasant concept.
In subsequent decades, through an output best described as small-C catholic, Moore has kept the touchstone of the capitalized form of the word close at hand. His Black Robe limned the grim lives and dramatic but evanescent impact of French missionaries afoot in colonial Canada; the film of the same name chillingly evoked Moore’s desolate descriptions and his characters’ granitic belief in an obviously doomed enterprise.
As Black Robe grew out of Canadian history, Lies had its basis in the historical fact of an IRA bombing, demonstrating that even when writing outside the churchly context, Moore can probe to the heart of a seemingly secular subject for elements of faith.
Moore’s new novel, No Other Life, combines the ecclesiastical and the historical: The former element is the familiar turf of Catholic culture; the latter, the gnarled history of Haiti, for which Moore’s fictional country, “Ganae,” stands in.
No Other Life has several levels. One is the chronicle of a failed bid to nurture democracy in that bosom of despotism. Another concerns how, while watching his friend’s ascent to authority and descent to anonymity and powerlessness, another man’s faith erodes from the stone on which Peter could build a proselytizing church into the shifting, shiftless sands of doubt. A third describes how, in a population spanning the spectrum of negritude, color lines still arise. A fourth is the interplay between the Catholic Church’s oft-displayed colonialist roots and some clerics’ embrace of liberation theology, which holds that to be a Christian witness is to stand with the oppressed against the oppressors. The word from Rome, in fact as well as in Moore’s fiction, is that this constitutes unwanted miscegenation of religion and politics. Extremists on either side of the question urge those seeking some middle ground to go straight to hell. No Other Life works at all its levels, but succeeds most dramatically in portraying people who wish for simple answers but are caught in vortexes of complexity.
Though it moves swiftly through even its most alarming passages, this is a book dotted with inside references, as if Moore aims to reward constant readers with winks and nods to his earlier works.
For example, Father Paul Michel, whose narration takes place years after events of the novel have occurred, belongs to the Albanesian Fathers, a teaching order that runs the College Saint Jean in Port Riche, Ganae (read: Port-au-Prince, Haiti). In Catholics, the besieged priory on Ireland’s Muck Island had been founded by…the Albanesian Order. The Albanesian Father Michel of No Other Life hails from northern Quebec, the region roamed by the Iroquois, voyageurs, and missionaries of Black Robe.
But these and other hommages do not intrude on Moore’s spare and speedy tale of what happens after Father Paul plucks the orphan Jean-Paul Cantave out of rural poverty and enrolls him in the college, sending the frail boy down a path leading to the presidency of Ganae.
Life imitates life. News mavens know the difference in skin tone between Haiti’s banished President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the café au lait cohort ruling that country. In the novel, Jean-Paul Cantave, nicknamed “Jeannot,” is a noir, a member of the enormous and miserable aubergine underclass. Hewing to the line drawn by history, Moore explains how Ganae’s light-skinned mulatres have ruled, in person or by wire, ever since they kicked out the French, who had brought in slaves to kick out the Indians. Drawing on the story of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the author makes Ganae’s dying, mad president a former country dentist named Jean-Marie “Uncle D.” Doumergue, a noir who was installed by the mulatre establishment as a sop to the poor but ambushed his handlers by building a terror-dealing secret police force to keep him in power.
French remains the language of Ganae’s ruling class, but the few white Albanesians left at the college are the only blancs of consequence outside the island’s diplomatic community, and their days are short. Courtesy of his tenure at the college and his long-standing connection to Jeannot, Father Paul witnesses and participates in his protégé’s ascendancy and decline. This arc brings the white priest into confrontation with fleshly desire and mortality, leaving him in agreement with his mother’s deathbed rejection of belief, which echoes throughout the book.
“There is no other life,” the dying woman tells her son. Then she expires, leaving him an old man at 47, tangled in emotions that unknot themselves to the ruination of his religion. Father Paul, who for all his good will and experience cannot hope to understand Jeannot or Ganae, floats through the book. Like a ghost, he watches his pupil’s evolution from preparatory school student to seminarian to politically active cleric to clerical politician, finally undergoing a literal transfiguration at his downfall.
It is no accident that Moore’s novels wind up on the screen. His transparent style calls no attention to itself, but rather gives the reader enough information with which to sketch a scene, then rivets it into place with understated dialogue.
Though some of Life‘s lesser personages walk on and off in two dimensions, Moore’s main characters are accessible without being facilely wrought. Father Paul is all too concrete a presence, fretting about the trivia of his fading life—the black suitcase that holds all his earthly possessions perches at the edge of his consciousness like an unwanted dog—as he moves among doers of deeds good and evil. Jeannot, whose sermons and speeches Moore arranges as open verse, is an elusive presence who recalls martyred heroes of the celluloid: Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, Evaristo Marquez as Jose Dolores in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
Listen to Jeannot as he yields his presidency to the goon squad:
Brothers and Sisters,
My hour is past.
My day is done.
When you can no longer see me,
When you can no longer find me,
I will be with you.
I will be with you
As will those who have died from soldier’s bullets,
Who lie in ditches,
Their bodies rotting,
Their winds stilled.
They are not dead.
They live on in you.
As I wait
For you to change our lives.
Undone by his friend’s undoing, Father Paul lives on for years, closing out his days at the college before retiring. He keeps to himself the secret aftermath of Jeannot’s disappearance and only in the book’s final paragraphs reveals the extent to which he has come to embrace his dying mother’s negation of faith. Moore seems to be saying that hope is a terrible gift to bestow, but just as terrible a burden to abandon, and No Other Life unblinkingly illuminates the thorny road to that realization.