Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. By Louis de Bernieres

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman

Louis de Bernieres

Vintage Books. First published 1992.

The book is set in an unnamed South American country, and the milieu is familiarly like the ones in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books, and in some by Graham Greene. Perhaps as homage to Marquez, a large part of the book uses magic realism as a narration technique. And, while there are no yellow butterflies or ships stuck in the middle of a swamp, there is an overflow of tame jaguars in the streets of the village of Cochadebajo de los Gatos. Cardinal Guzman, who suffers unbearable stomach pains, is diagnosed as bearing a highly developed teratoma. This a tumor of a pluripotent stem cells that may develop hair and often the tissue of other organs including eyes and brains. The catholic priest is therefore forced to assent to an 'abortion' of a 'foetus' from his own (male) body!

But this style of writing is in only one part of the book. The rest is conventional, though here too there are frequent apparent allusions to Marquez - the names Aurelio, Remedios, Rinconondo (Macondo?), and a reference to the 'solitude' of a place. However, as somebody remarked in a Marquez obituary recently, no one writing about South America can anymore use the words 'solitude' or 'one hundred years' without invoking the presence of Gabo. 

Cardinal Guzman's catholic missionaries are rejected and sometime killed by communist or capitalist militia, or by native villagers who incorporate local pre-Christian traditions and create their own versions of the faith. In trying to protect them, the Cardinal unwittingly unleashes an inquisition, full of confessions and autos-da-fe, conducted by his grim, self-righteous secretary. A large bodyguard of thugs and a few priests constitute this new army of Christ. Owing to the preoccupation of the elected President with his libido, or rather the lack of it, there is no real government in the country. Taking advantage of this, El Innocente, as the secretary calls himself, travels across the country with his retinue, bringing 'heretics' to justice and to Christ in unspeakably awful ways. Meanwhile, the people in the village of Cochadebajo de los Gatos have established a comfortable equilibrium of existence in a free and easy society that includes blacks, native Indians, whites, Latinos, jaguars, whores, engineers and couple of priests. The avenging army of the inquisition comes up against its first major block at this village, and lays siege to it. Eventually, through a combination of luck, ingenuity, courage, magic and assistance from the lawful army, the villagers win, and it now the turn of El Innocente to be subjected to unspeakable horror.

The book is not as good as the one that first attracted me to de Bernieres - 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin'. It lacks its sweetness and narrative continuity. The story I have summarized above is only one of the narrative threads. There is another concerning the Cardinal, and a third about the crazy exploits of the President and his trophy wife. And a couple of others concerning various other minor characters. 

But it is the story of the new 'Albigensian Crusade*', which I summarized in the previous paragraph, on which de Bernieres hangs his humanist political beliefs. In discussing how the numbers of the crusaders grew so suddenly, he gives the following background: 'In the past the Liberals had mercilessly slaughtered, tortured and raped in the name of modern secular state, and the Conservatives had done exactly the same in the name of the Catholic theocracy.' The results of the wars were so confusing, that is was a deep puzzle why they were undertaken in the first place. A possible explanation was that 'the nation possessed the kind of mentality that would see no contradiction in invading another country to impose pacifism upon it.' 

In another passage, de Bernieres writes about how the the leftist guerrillas were 'first welcomed and supplied by the campesinos, who saw as their only means of survival the establishment of a communist state that would more equitably distribute the profits of production.' Also they hoped that they would be protected from the army, 'which seemed to be little more than a state-funded organisation for the perpetration of rape and pillage'. When the guerrillas overthrew the army and 'had a free hand to slot with immaculate precision into the place it had left vacant', now, in turn, 'the peasants were raped and pillaged by guerrillas who demanded supplies and other privileges'. Much the same kind of drama, I suppose, is being enacted in the forests of Central India today.

On the whole, book does not say anything new, at least not much that has not already been said with better support and more insight elsewhere. In sum, after the high expectations raised by 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', this book is a disappointment.

*The Albigensian Crusade refers to the 20 year campaign of massacre and pillage that occurred the early 13th century in the Langedouc region of France, centered around the town of Albi. It was carried out under orders from Pope Innocent III, who wanted to root out Catharism, a 'heretic' sect of Christianity which believed that all material stuff is evil and only the spirit is pure. The crusaders were constituted of the kind of thugs de Bernieres writes as comprising the new crusade.

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