The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This article was a response to the friend who first loaned me the book, "The Sparrow".  If you haven’t yet read the book, and wish to do so, then skip this; it’s full of spoilers – ie I say what happens. 

 

Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow Black Swan, GB 1997

Fantastically impressive.  I don’t think I’ve ever read such a fully realised and realistic story of human faith before.  I don’t think it should be called science fiction.  The Alien Encounter and Tremendous Journey etc have far more to do with conditions here on earth than any really new technology or scientific theorising.  The science fiction base really only provided a playground within which Mary Russel played her own games.  She treated the Genre respectfully, but it wasn’t where she made her mark.  Her Sandoz character and his faith development is the real guts of it.

One major gripe with the structure.  She builds the scene in Naples up to a point of enormous tension, within which Sandoz is any moment expected to reveal some terrible experience which will explain his bitterness, his refusal to cooperate and his homicidal/suicidal leanings.  And she blows it.  Rape is revealed and practically dismissed fairly early on in the story in the context of the sufferings of other missionaries.  And when it comes down to it, Sandoz has practically no difficulty with disclosing his eating Ruanja flesh or killing Askama, but balks horrendously at saying that he was raped.  WHY?!  She was writing in the nineties when guys were disclosing rape on Oprah almost as regularly as the women.  Sandoz was supposed to have grown up in and ministered in some very rough neighbourhoods.  Yes, rape is horrific, but he would have known from many first-hand experiences that rape of women and men is a practically every-day occurance.  So, yes, he would feel shame and bitterness and fear and all those things, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of the revelation of the darkness of the human soul.  Why should that disclosure be a bigger stumbling block for him than so many of the other things he’d experienced?

In the end, the rape wasn’t the key difficulty; it was the fact that God did it, or allowed it to happen – and everything else as well.  And that fact alone really does explain Sandoz’ reaction.  She didn’t get it wrong; just misplaced the emphasis.  The diclosure should not have been that he was raped (which was very obvious from much earlier on) but that he felt raped by God.  Then it all fits.

It does make more sense of the Sci-fi setting though.  Such a denoument would be far less believable in an earthly setting.  Sandoz fell in love with God in a fools’ paradise where there was no theodicy to worry about. Had he enjoyed the same religious experience in La Perla (which was quite possible – he was there by choice, with his favourite people close to him and he excelled at being a parish priest; the condiitions for gratitude and appreciation of God’s goodness were just as possible there) he would have had to work out the theodicy in the context of everyday evil.  The apparent goodness of the VaKashin lifestyle blinded him to the reality of evil and made it all the more cruel and overwhelming when he had to face it again; when it was visited upon his person so intensly.  So he really did need to get off the planet in order to make his enormous fall from beatitude to bitterness possible eh?  Most of us just get to live out both a little bit at a time and in doses we more or less cope with.

I’m delighted to see there’s a sequel.  The final pages have Sandoz almost completely healed following his catharsis – going for morning runs and making sincere apologies the very next day.  Totally unbelievable.  He should have been numb as a bum on a concrete seat for the better part of a week at least, and then very depressed for another month.  I guess she had to wrap the book up, and that’s fine, but I’m looking forward to more of the reality of human journey in the next chapter.

 

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