Thursday, 5 December 2013

MORRIS WEST The Devil's Advocate (1959)

Pan Books, 1960s

Blaise Meredith was by temperament a conformist.  He had kept the rules all his life; all the rules – except one: that sooner or later he must step beyond the forms and conventions and enter into a direct, personal relationship with his fellows and with his God.  A relationship of charity –– which is a debased Latin word for love.  And love in all its forms and degrees is a surrender of bodies in the small death of the bed, the surrender of the spirit in the great death which is the moment of union between God and Man.
 Never in his life had Blaise Meredith surrendered himself to anyone.  He had asked favours of none –– because to ask a favour is to surrender one's pride and independence.  Now, no matter what name he put to it, he could not bring himself to ask a favour of the Almighty, in whom he professed belief, to whom, according to the same belief, he stood in the relationship of son and father. 
  And this was the reason for his terror.  If he did not come to submission he would remain for ever what he was now: lonely, barren, friendless, to eternity.

The Novel:  A stranger –– a foreign-born deserter badly wounded in a war which Italy is clearly bound to lose –– arrives unexpectedly in the small, poverty-stricken mountain village of Gemello Minore located in the arid southern region of Calabria.  It's 1944 and the Italians and their German allies are in retreat, pursued by the invading British and American forces and by bands of roving Communist-backed partisans who feel it's their right, if not their duty, to take the law into their own hands by carrying out reprisals against those who collaborated with the Fascists.  The stranger, an Englishman by birth who speaks fluent Italian and goes by the name of Giacomo Nerone [James Black], is taken in and cared for by a young village woman and the local doctor, Aldo Meyer, a Jewish political exile and Communist sympathizer (who is not unlike the real life Jewish political exile Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli).  Together they nurse Nerone back to health and in time the woman, Nina Sanduzzi, falls in love with him and gives birth to his child, a son named Paolo. 

To repay Nina and her fellow villagers for their kindness and discretion, Nerone selflessly devotes himself to the cause of their survival, finding ways to gather and hide food from the occupying Germans and the steadily advancing Allied armies so they'll be able to endure the long harsh mountain winter without needing to rely on anyone but themselves for sustenance, shelter and warmth.  Nerone becomes their saint –– a man capable, or so it seems, of making them act in each other's best interests for the first time in their lives and performing similar 'miracles' like healing the sick and curing his own infant son of blindness.  

In the eyes of the partisans, and their Moscow-trained leader Il Lupo [The Wolf], the villagers' belief in Nerone's 'saintliness' reflects exactly the kind of ignorance and religious superstition they wish to see obliterated by Italy's new post-war Communist government.  Given the choice by Meyer and Il Lupo to leave Gemello Minore or stay and face the consequences, Nerone chooses the latter option, sealing his own fate just as Jesus sealed his by refusing to flee Jerusalem prior to his arrest by the Pharisees.  Like Jesus, Nerone is also murdered by men who fear and mistrust him because his actions – which he insists are based upon love for his fellow men and upon that emotion alone –– seem to defy every human instinct for common sense and self-preservation.

But is Nerone a true saint?  Did he really perform the miracles the villagers believe he performed before his arrest and execution by Il Lupo for being, ironically, a collaborator?  The villagers whose lives he saved have no doubt of his sanctity.  The war ends and they want him canonized because he was their Blessed One, sent by God to protect them and die on their behalf.  Didn't he willingly accept martyrdom rather than incite them to fight the Germans and Il Lupo and his men because he knew these were battles they could never win, battles which would have cost the lives of innocent people already exhausted and brutalized by four long years of war?   

Fontana Books, film tie-in, 1977
Beatification, however, is neither a simple nor straightforward process.  To become a true saint, an individual's sanctity must first be proven and then ratified by the highest functionaries of the Catholic Church.  The burden of performing the first phase of this job falls to Monsignor Blaise Meredith, an English-born cleric who serves as assistant to the Prefect of the Congregation of Rites in the Holy City of Rome.  It's the task of the Congregation of Rites, and its 'Devil's Advocate' –– also known as 'the Protector of the Faith' –– to examine the case histories of alleged candidates for beatification and present their findings to a specially-convened ecclesiastical court, which must rigorously examine the available evidence, debate it if necessary, then ultimately approve or disapprove the candidate's eligibility for canonization. 

Meredith, his superior Cardinal Marotta believes, is the ideal man to serve the Church as Devil's Advocate in the case of Nerone because the man chosen for the job 'must be learned, meticulous, passionless.  He must be cold in judgment, ruthless in condemnation.  He might lack charity of piety, but he could not lack precision.'  Meredith possesses all these qualities.  He's an emotionally isolated and spiritually troubled man, facing his own imminent death from stomach cancer with admirable fortitude but also with the knowledge that he's never loved humanity or been truly loved by another human being in return.  Yet he's willing to devote what will probably be the last months of his life to uncovering the truth about Nerone, turning himself into a kind of religious District Attorney who, when he reaches the poor isolated village of Gemello Minore, must interview Nina, Paolo, Aldo Meyer, the local Contessa and everybody else who knew the man and somehow separate the truth of who and what he was from the myths which have engulfed him since his so-called 'martyrdom' at the hands of the Communists.  Was Nerone – this fornicating deserter who fathered a bastard child –– a saint or a charlatan, a masquerading sinner or a selfless penitent like St Augustine of Hippo and all the other 'true saints' the Church so piously reveres?  And can Meredith himself find the peace he craves before he dies, the genuine love for his fellow men that a priest, if he's a genuine priest rather than a glorified clerk going through the motions for appearances' sake, should rightfully possess deep within his heart?

William Heinemann & Co, 1st UK edition, 1959
The Devil's Advocate is, first and foremost, a novel of ideas.  Its plot, most of which concerns Meredith's arrival in the village – the way he's received and perceived by the villagers, the discussions he has with the unhappy Contessa who houses him in her villa, with the plain-spoken Nina, with the guilt-ridden Meyer and the jaded, satyr-like homosexual painter Nicholas Black who apparently wishes to seduce Nerone's handsome teenaged son – is less important than the questions it raises about Catholicism and paganism, sanctity and piety and, most tellingly of all, the nature and function of love in its many, often elusively dangerous guises.  Each character is searching for love of some kind –– the ability to love humanity like Meredith and the perpetually disappointed and exiled Dr Meyer, physical love like the aging, sexually dissatisfied Contessa, the love of a God, like the self-sacrificing Nerone, who may or may not exist –– and it's in his depiction of these individual strivings that West reveals his greatest strength as a novelist –– his ability to get inside not only the heads and skins but also inside the lonely tormented hearts of his characters.  While both the story and its setting have clearly and obviously dated, as they must after fifty-four years, the idea of unhappy human beings who yearn, sometimes overtly and sometimes secretly, to find a reason and a purpose for their otherwise inexplicable existences has hardly dated at all.  These people are all, in a sense, pilgrims, seekers of a truth which remains as personal as it does, for some, unattainable.  

The questions West asks about faith, sin and the necessity of forgiveness make The Devil's Advocate a fascinating book even for non-believers like myself who share my deep reservations about the Catholic Church and its ongoing refusal to acknowledge and confront the sexual abuses carried out by its clergy against those alleged to be living in its 'care.'  Catholicism could use a few more priests like Monsignor Meredith and his kindhearted friend the Bishop of Valenta – men of wit, intelligence, compassion and understanding who refuse to allow their faith to blind them to their own inherent human weaknesses and what are often highly unpalatable truths about personal morality and way the Church controls, undermines and sometimes perverts these discoveries to serve its own ignoble ends.  


MORRIS WEST, c. 1972
The Writer:  For most of his long and illustrious career, Morris West was Australia's best known literary export and most internationally acclaimed author, a novelist whose sales topped sixty million, placing him in the same lofty tax bracket as other internationally renowned 'busters of block' such as James A Michener, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins and Leon Uris.  Unlike these writers, however, West's success was the result of his ability to combine the tightly-plotted suspense of the contemporary espionage novel with what were deeply-felt, very personal explorations of the concept of faith and his ongoing love/hate relationship with the Catholic Church and its frequently paradoxical teachings.

Morris Langlo West, the eldest of six children, was born in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda on 26 April 1916.  He attended the Christian Brothers College in St Kilda before moving to Sydney at the age of thirteen to continue his studies with the order in preparation for what he believed would be his eventual ordination into the priesthood.  Although he lived and studied in the seminary and took what were known as 'annual vows,' he left the order in 1941 without taking the final vows that would have seen him become an officially ordained Catholic cleric.  A fluent speaker of both French and Italian, he taught these languages in schools in both New South Wales and Tasmania before marrying his first wife and enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force where he served out the war as a code-breaker and was briefly seconded to work in the office of former Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.

West left the RAAF in 1945 and spent the next ten years working as a writer and producer of radio serials in Australia before quitting this job to pursue a risky new career as a full-time novelist.  (A money-earning suspense novel, titled Moon in My Pocket, was published in 1945 under the pseudonym 'Julian Morris', as were several later books in the same genre published under the name of 'Michael East.')  This began a twenty-five year odyssey which saw West, his second wife Joy and their four children live in Austria, Italy (where he served for a time as Vatican correspondent for the Daily Mail), England and the United States while he worked to establish his reputation as the author of non-fiction books like Children of the Sun (1957), which described the lives of street urchins in Naples, and later bestsellers like The Devil's Advocate (1959) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963) which were openly critical of the Catholic Church and what he saw as being its unhealthy obsessions with power for its own sake and its ever more precarious status in a morally compromised post-war world. 

Although West was ignored by the Australian literati and written off by many critics as being little more than 'a middlebrow Graham Greene,' his books were translated into over twenty languages and appeared regularly on international bestseller lists for more than forty years.  Nor did his dismissal by the critics prevent him from winning several important literary prizes, including the James Tait Black Memorial Award for The Devil's Advocate, or hinder him in his efforts to co-found the Australian Society of Authors –– an organization dedicated to ensuring that authors' rights were respected and they received fair financial compensation for their work.  He also became an anti-war protester following a 1963 visit to Vietnam where he personally met with that country's outspoken Catholic President, Ngo Dinh Diem –– a democratically-elected leader who was assassinated shortly afterwards by the CIA with the full endorsement of US President (and fellow Catholic) John F Kennedy.  Diem made no secret of the fact that he wanted the Americans to leave Vietnam and West always believed that his reporting of his anti-US statements to the Australian Ambassador led directly to his execution. 

MORRIS WEST, c. 1993
West received an MBE in 1985 and was invested as a member of the Order of Australia in 1997, three years after what was meant to be his retirement from what he, only half-jokingly, called 'the disease of writing.'  Despite his ongoing criticisms of the Church and its doctrines, he remained a devout Catholic who, according to his widow, attended mass every Sunday and never stopped hoping that he'd be granted the Papal annulment denied him for divorcing his first wife and remarrying another woman prior to her death.  His own death came on 10 October 1999, at home in his study, while working on what was to be his final novel.  This unfinished book, his twenty-seventh, was published by HarperCollins under the title The Last Confession in 2000 with an afterword by his wife and a foreword by his friend and fellow novelist Thomas Keneally.  In addition to his novels, West was also the author of five plays, including a 1961 adaptation of The Devil's Advocate.  Five of his novels, including The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968, starring Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier) and The Devil's Advocate (1977, starring John Mills and Daniel Massey), were adapted for the cinema with varying degrees of critical and commercial success.

Click HERE to read MICHAEL McGIRR's review of the authorized biography Morris West: Literary Maverick written by (Sister) MARYANNE CONFOY, published by the Australian firm of John Wiley in 2005.  You can also click HERE to read a short, thought-provoking account of what MORRIS WEST experienced in Vietnam in 1963 written by novelist SHANE MOLONEY which appeared in Issue #73 of the Australian news and current affairs magazine The Monthly.   

Those who may be interested in visiting the authorized website of MORRIS WEST can do so by clicking HERE.

You might also enjoy:
BRIAN MOORE The Feast of Lupercal (1958)
CARLO LEVI Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
D'ARCY NILAND The Shiralee (1955)

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