Sunday, May 24, 2009

Something different ...

... here's my review of Piers Paul Read's The Death of a Pope: A complex thriller converging on Rome.

I have been exchanging emails with Piers Paul Read about this book (an exchange begun after I had written my review) and he has agreed to let me reproduce it here. What follows is just the beginning:

FW: Among the many things I found interesting about the book is how attractive and persuasive Juan Uriarte is. This reminded me of how good Aquinas is at presenting the arguments of those he does not in fact agree with. To do this you have to enter deeply - and sympathetically - into the other's position.
On the other hand, those in the novel who prove to be the instruments of God's providence and thwart Uriarte's scheme - Luke Scott and Monsignor Perez - display nothing of Uriarte's charisma or subtlety.
I found this rather heartening, since many people seem to be always on the lookout for some hero to do God's work, whereas God is fully capable of doing His own work using the people who come to hand, as it were.
So one question, obviously, is this: You must have gone into the idea of of the social gospel rather deeply - and sympathetically. And yet remain or have come to be suspicious of it. Would you care to explain?
PPR: When I was a student at Cambridge I was a zealous Liberationist - partly influenced by some very radical Dominicans at the Cambridge Blackfriars. There was a Catholic Liberationist review called Slant. The view was that you could only help the poor in the Third world with social revolution. I changed my views in later years because 1) I lived for a while in Berlin and saw socialism in practice on the eastern side of the wall 2) studied more history and came to understand that revolutionaries usually turn out to be self-serving and 3) deepened my understanding of the Catholic faith, realising that it was more about saving souls than social welfare. I also went out to Salvador on a journalistic project and heard the criticism of the FMLN and the Jesuits from the 'traditional' clergy there - views which never got through to the Catholic journals in Britain.
But certainly, Uriarte represents to some extent my youthful self and the novel is a debate between the older and one hopes wiser author and his that youthful self.
FW: Well, in the novel you not only present a very appealing picture of Uriarte - it is only toward the end that what we might call his charming ruthlessness starts to show - but you also present a good man - Father Luke - who doesn't seem to have any of what it takes to counter a guy like Uriarte. He's too gentle, too kind and loving. And Father Luke seems to know he's no match for Uriarte. He really doesn't even try to argue with Kate over Uriarte, because he knows it will do no good. And yet, in the long run, Father Luke is pivotal to the novel's resolution. That deeper understanding of Catholicism that you just mentioned, might it have something to do with our being instruments of God, in contrast to the sort of movers and shakers the liberationist theologians would have us be?
PPR: Yes. What I now believe is that Catholicism is not an ideology but an openess to the grace of God so that it is not me but Christ in me, as Saint Paul puts it. Father Luke is discouraged, I think, by the way in which Kate has succumbed to the worldly values of the zeitgeist but I trust that his role in the denoument shows that his love is far superior to that of Uriarte. I hope to convey by Kate's tears at the very end of the novel that she has come to understand this and is on the way to conversion.
FW: I did feel at the end, when Kate cries, that she does on some level "get it." This morning, at Mass, I kept thinking for some reason of Monsignor Perez. He is vain - very preoccupied with the details of ecclesiastical preferment. And yet he has a sincere and simple faith that prompts him to set in motion a chain of events that will thwart evil.
Then there is Cardinal Doornik - who would never have assented to what Uriarte really has in mind - but who can wrap his conscience around breaking a vow ... for what he perceives to be a higher good. Doornik shares with the good people in the book their imperfections, though unlike the others he cannot rise above them.
Uriarte is different from all of the rest. He is so smooth, so self-possessed and self-confidant. He has indeed achieved a kind of bloodless perfection. Somerset Maugham says somewhere that perfection is a trifle dull. In Uriarte you have created a character who leads one to think that perfection can also be more than a trifle menacing.
So how would you describe the moral divide separating Uriarte from the others?
PPR: Is there such a great moral divide between Uriarte and Cardina Doornik and Monsignor Perez? I would have thought they were all united in the sin of pride. Uriarte is ahead of the others - a Luciferian figure - and, despite their basically good intentions, he pulls them down in
his wake. The most neglected virtues these days, it seems to me, are humility and chastity. I have tried to suggest that it is a hatred of chastity as well as pride that motivates Uriarte, something Kate realises towards the end of the novel.
FW: I have sometimes made the point in lectures that there is a creative dimension to reading: The reader must exercise his own imagination in order to realize what the author has written.
We seem to have imagined Monsignor Perez somewhat differently - or did I discern a sympathy that you may have been unaware of consciously? At any rate, I imagined Perez as a sad and somewhat lost soul, who at least has enough of a moral sense ... to have his confession heard by priest he knows is not a temporizer.
I even sensed a certain sad, lost quality to Doornik. I suppose what I amn wondering is this: Do these characters affect the reader more sympathetically than you perhaps intended?
Uriarte, on the other hand, is definitely Luciferian as you say, which is what makes him such a compelling figure. Were your book to be made into a film, what a great role Uriarte would provide some actor (Benicio del Toro perhaps - he's already played Che Guevara, a far less interesting figure than Uriarte).
We are the same age, so both of us remember when there was no "traditionalist" branch of the Church. That "branch" was the Church. The Death of a Pope portrays a Catholic Church that is not only at odds with the world, but also with itself in some sense. If this is a correct perception about the book, it would also seem to follow that the book is reminding us that forces are at work on behalf of the Church far greater than any individual, whether Pope or parishioner, can
ever muster. Is this correct and if so, could you elaborate?

This is where we are so far. I will continue to update and bump the post up.


  1. Wonderful. You've gotten a lot deeper than many other reviewers/interviewers have, from what I've read and seen. Looking forward to the follow up.

  2. (You might want to link this to the subsequent exchange, btw. Really, they're very good. Here's the URL for now: )

  3. Thanks so much. I'm glad you liked it.