Monday, October 26, 2015

John Boyne's "A History of Loneliness": Book Review

“Sure the mammies pushed us all into it.” Early in John Boyne’s novel, Father Odran Yates blurts out this explanation to the Archbishop of Dublin about why so many men once entered the priesthood there. A History of Loneliness dramatizes Father Yates’ (and given his insistence on keeping up appearances, it’s either Odran to his family or Father Yates to everyone else, not Father Odran) determination to continue as a good man. This becomes tougher during the last thirty-five years, as Ireland reacts to revelations of sexual abuse by too many in the clergy, and the government-sponsored collusion in shielding offenders from justice. Starting with his admission into the seminary as a teenager in 1973, up to the 2013 realization of his complicity in enabling his classmate, Tom Cardle, to avoid accounting for his own crimes against young men, Father Odran, in Boyne’s narrative, leaps back and forth in time as he tells us his story. He and Tom are men with a “history of loneliness” who have found their long-held position in Irish society erode, as challenges to traditional power have undermined the status of the Catholic Church.

Boyne carefully examines Father Odran’s predicament. While as a young man, he was brought up by his widowed mother to believe he had a vocation, he admits that this calling suited him nonetheless. He was brought up in the last generation to regard the priesthood as a respected career, and in the early 1980s, on a crowded train, the young priest resents the fawning attention given him, constantly, by all whom he meets. Wishing for everyone to leave him alone, he wonders “how a small twist of white plastic could inspire so much devotion.” He remembers, as always in public, that he wears his clerical garb. He chats with a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust, who reminds him not to resent those who pay him respect. “And one day that might change. And then there will be no more food for your friends. And you will all go hungry.” This moment will come two decades later, after the reports on clerical abuse and state cover-ups will enrage many Irish men and women. How one priest shifted from the moments of praise to the years of contempt creates a fluent narrative, through moral heft and measured judgments. While it wobbles through digressions, the central character holds one's interest.

Terrified of difference, seeking conformity, a few idealistic or resigned young men entered the seminary. Some found themselves pressured, as in Tom’s case, to remain there despite their unfit nature for the priesthood. Boyne illustrates the demands placed on those channeled into the clerical system, and the indifference with which many were treated by their superiors in the hierarchy.   The archbishop responds to Father Odran’s question in 2007 about Tom’s guilt in the crimes for which he is accused: “you can go back to your precious school and teach the little bastards about respecting the church.”

Soon, however, the Archbishop is disgraced for his own role in the abuse scandal, as he moved priests such as Tom about from parish to parish for decades, to evade accounting for his sins.  At his classmate’s trial, Father Odran notes the prevalence of black in the courtroom. He and the judge share “the pigment of power” in their garb; Tom appears in layman’s attire. His classmate reflects: “Of course the shades in my profession changed as one advanced through the ranks, from black to scarlet to white; darkness, blood, and a cleansing at the very top.” Boyne’s way with a phrase works well here, and the ease with which the author intersperses an occasional analogy or image into the priest’s first-person narration convinces the reader of the self-awareness of Father Odran about his own difficulties with his role. 

While a backstory placing Odran as a seminarian during his last terms of study in Rome, serving as a papal assistant in the Vatican chambers in 1978, the year of the three popes, remains a somewhat melodramatic if clever device engineered to account for his subsequent lack of rank in the Irish power structure, it does feature a sympathetic portrait of the Patriarch of Venice. Cardinal Luciani treats Odran kindly. This thoughtful man reigned for a month as Pope John Paul I. His predecessor, Paul VI, ends his only conversation with the seminarian by asking the unanswered query: “What will we do with Ireland?”

The answer comes after more popes, as the Vatican’s corruption reveals the Church’s inability to justify its control, given clerical misdeeds and a culture of protecting its own against the law and the laity.  Father Odran hears Tom’s plea of not guilty and feels a “darkness stirring” about his own fault, “for I had seen things and I had suspected things and I had turned away from things and I had done nothing.” Again, the direct style Boyne uses to convey his protagonist’s epiphany keeps the reader listening to Father Odran, but also able to distance an ethical reaction to his self-realization as it unfolds, after he has suppressed it for decades, from the seminary on. He struggles with how to treat Tom: “If I cannot see some good in all of us and hope that the pain we all share will come to an end, what kind of a priest am I anyway? What kind of man?” Throughout the narrative, Father Odran strives for decency, but he appears to have done so too quietly, as he has been spared the torments of some of his sexually frustrated or temperamentally warped colleagues, for the most part. Yet, he suffers, as this novel shows.

The guilt Father Odran finally articulates eludes facile resolution. Boyne leaves him at the end of this novel lamenting the current state of his homeland. In 2013, at fifty-eight, Father Odran speaks perhaps for his author and for many Irish who watch as European bankers intervene to impose austerity measures. Neither politicians nor priests command respect any more. Ireland has become “a country of drug addicts, losers, criminals, pedophiles, and incompetents.” Among them, Father Odran finds himself despised, as a survivor of clerical abuse hisses “pedophile” at him, not the only time in this narrative. 

Boyne’s story is recommended, along with Kevin Holohan’s satirical 2011 take on this serious subject, The Brothers’ Lot, as a depiction of the institutional breakdown of a pillar of Irish society. The fall of the Church from grace has received belated scrutiny by journalists and historians.  But for fictional treatments, which allow us to enter the minds of those who entered the ranks of the clergy under the pressure or cajoling of mothers once not long ago, A History of Loneliness fulfills a need for a novel on this timely, sad, subject.

This appeared in altered and shorter form on Spectrum Culture 2-5-15. See also Amazon US 2-2-15.

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