I don’t normally read modern novels but I was recently sent the Irish writer John Boyne’s latest novel: A History of Loneliness. After reading it, it struck me that the recent revelations of priestly abuse in the Irish Church have possibly given rise to a new genre of “misery fiction”, just as the wide publicity given to child abuse generally has caused a spate of “misery memoirs.”
I don’t say this in a dismissive way. Whatever the literary merits of misery memoirs, if the story is true (and sometimes their veracity has been contested) it makes one weep: as a mother, as a Catholic and as a human being. I would say the same of Irish “misery fiction”. In Ireland we now know of appalling cover-ups, the wicked behaviour of some priests in the Church and the desolation and heartbreak suffered by their victims. Former abused altar boy, Colm O’Gorman, has written about his own experiences in his autobiography, Beyond Belief, which I reviewed some years ago. In the face of such testimony one can only feel anger and shame at the corruption that went unheeded and unchecked for so many years.
It’s different now. The bishops have learnt their lesson; “accountability” is enforced, there is better psychological screening of young men seeking to be priests and the voice of lay people (and the secular media) has never been more powerful. Thank God for this. Given this, it makes me wonder a little at the particular slant Boyne gives to his narrative, the story of an Irish priest, Fr Odran Yates. It seems he was pushed into the priesthood by his over-devout mother. We also learn that he was abused by his own parish priest as a boy and was so traumatised that he buried the incident for many years. His best friend in seminary, also dragged into the priesthood, this time by an abusive father, turns into a serial abuser of boys himself and ends up in prison.
One victim commits suicide; another, Fr Yates’s own nephew, is scarred for life by his experience. We read of a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy among the higher clergy, such as Yates’s Archbishop Cordington, who moves Cardle, the paedophile priest, from parish to parish and who is motivated by personal power politics and the avoidance of scandal. Finally, Yates himself confesses he has led a wasted life, playing a priestly role he doesn’t believe in (and never has). As you can see, this is real “misery fiction” stuff.
My gripe with the book is not that there aren’t priests like Fr Yates, God help him, or abusers like Fr Cardle, or unpleasant men like Archbishop Cordington. Alas, there are, although fewer today as the Church has begun the painful but necessary process of purgation and reform. It is that the book reads like an angry polemic against the Church, only thinly disguised as fiction; ideology rather than ideas are at work in its pages. Good literature has to be more nuanced, more subtle than this. If the picture painted is only of corruption, hypocrisy and brutality you will finally protest, “There is more to life – and the Church – than what is described here.”
In his brilliant Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Joyce describes a particularly sadistic Jesuit at Clongowes, the Jesuit boarding school his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, attended; but he also recognises that the Church is not only composed of cowards, abusers and sadists. Joyce grapples with the large questions: what do good and evil mean? What are salvation and damnation, grace, sanctity and sin about? There is none of this in A History of Loneliness. You cannot sympathise with, or relate to, characters who are described in so relentlessly one-dimensional a fashion; they are simply not credible. They are a secular media’s caricature of the priesthood, not fallen men. It makes me think that Irish fiction needs to discover a country priest who might be surrounded by moral indifference and depravity and who is only too aware of his own weaknesses, but who also knows, despite the worst that can sometimes happen, that – to quote from Georges Bernanos – “grace is everywhere”.
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