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A brilliant subject and idea but the epiphany is not complete
on 23 November 2009
Anne Rice is starting a new series of novels, The Songs of the Seraphim, first volume Angel Time. Her technique is still the same: telling the story of a man from the outside, though often from this man's point of view. Women become tricky with angels. This man takes us - thanks to his seraph - to Norwich, England, 13th century and then she tells us the events of that time and place and describes the lifestyle of these people. We are at home with that level of the novel. The rest is in a way new. A hit man who has forgotten his past - so he says - is one day caught up by a seraph sent by his own guardian angel and this seraph brings him a mission. But before revealing the mission he reveals him his first eighteen years of life, considering he remembers the next ten as a hit man. This first layer describes the dreariest, bleakest, darkest, direst social environment possible for that young man. It is that bleak environment that pushes him into leaving after a personal drama. The only positive point is his passion for the lute that provides him with an income, for himself and his family, by playing in the streets of New Orleans and in restaurants. Welcome Royal Street and Bourbon Street revisited. After leaving New Orleans he moved to New York where he becomes a hit man after another drama, quite personal but having nothing to do with his family. He moves to California and operates via telephone and becomes Lucky, the needle sniper. That's when the seraph recuperates him, reveals him his youth and why his deeply Christian faith has disappeared when he left New Orleans. A weak point in the novel. His conversion back to Christianity is not convincing. It happens too much as if it was programmed. Then the mission is to go to Norwich and save Meir of Norwich, a poet whose only known poetry is in Hebrew and kept in the Vatican's museum, and his wife Fluria, two Jews who are the victims of an attempt to create a Little Saint with Fluria's daughter who died of appendicitis. We discover the role of the Jews in 13th century England and the sectarianism of both the Jewis and Christians, through the relation Fluria, the daughter of a Jewish master who has been teaching the sons of Gentile families in philosophy and Hebrew, has with one of her father's students, the son Godman of the local Earl. It reveals the refusal of the Jews to let their children convert to Christianism. A Jew must be ready to die for his/her God or faith. On the other side there is another type of sectarianism, animated by some priests, by the Black Friars or Dominicans, the inventors of the Inquisition and some Christian fundamentalists who want to convert all Jewish children and to create little saints from the children (Christians or would-be Christians) they accuse the Jews have ritualistically assassinated. That will go on in England till the total ban of the Jews by the King in 1290, a ban that will be cancelled by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth in the mid 17th century. Our hero, who has recovered his identity, Toby O'Dare, is sent there as a Blakcfriar to be the go-between to find a solution to the dilemma facing Meir and Fluria, accused of infanticide. He discovers the horror of the rift between the two cultures and he succeeds in helping Meir and Fluria to escape alive. He reveals the criminal fundamentalism of the Dominicans, in keeping with their main invention, the Inquisition, but also the death instinct of a vast section of the English society of the time, those who need to kill and either kill any time an opportunity appears or Christianize it into a ritual that makes them ask for the trial and execution of a couple of Jews, knowing though it might kindle a real riot or pogrom. The second weakness of the novel comes in these fundamentalist scenes. The Jewish father's anger when he learns his Christian student Godwin wants to take one of his twin daughters away is not dense enough to convince us. He is cold but that makes his anger superficial though this betrayal is the betrayal of the Jewish people since Judaism founds its legitimacy on the mother, which means the daughter who is taken away is a Jew by birth, from her mother, and the future propagator of Judaism as a woman, later a mother. Weak too is the trial and the acceptance of the trick devised by Friar Toby. We could be pretty sure they would have "questioned" the girl to make her speak and the trick would have been revealed. And that questioning could have been fierce, leading to death because the girl would only have been a Jew, hence not a sinning Christian, and her being tortured to death would not have been in any way a crime. That girl, and her mother the same, was hardly a human being since they did not have Christian souls. The last remark on this story is that Anne Rice reduces the monastic orders to two, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. She forgets there was a third one, older than these two and which had performed the Christian revolution of the 9th-10th centuries that led to the "Peace of God" movement and the social and economic revolutions of the 11th-13th centuries. And that makes her novel slightly shallow. Think of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The end is perfect since we learn two essential elements: the paternity of Toby in New Orleans ten years before, and the new mission, though we do not know what it is, or rather will be in the next volume.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID