Like so many of Canada's artistic jewels, Michael O'Brien and his works are not to be found in Toronto and are not regularly featured in the Globe and Mail or on the CBC. This author and painter is based in Combermere, in Ontario's Ottawa Valley, far away from the literary pretensions and jejune aspirations of many of the writers who populate our larger cities. O'Brien's paintings and murals are displayed in churches and museums across North America, and his novel Father Elijah, published last year, has created intellectual ripples felt far beyond this continent.
I do not usually devote this column to the discussion of single books, but this volume, published by the young but brilliant Ignatius Press in San Francisco, is one of the most remarkable works of fiction that I have read in the last decade by a living author. At a time when many Canadian novels play the same tunes with the same instruments, it is a delight to hear something so radically different and so uncluttered, performed in timeless melodies and by an intensely talented musician.
Father Elijah is subtitled An Apocalypse, which immediately places it outside the contemporary Canadian canon. Novels of the end-times and related matters abound in North America but they are usually numbing and clichéd, relying on the comfort food of religious certainties rather than on subtle dialogue and profound plot. This work is different in that O'Brien seems to have used an approaching apocalypse both as a theme in itself and as a vehicle to examine our state and our sorrow. His characters live beyond and outside the story, continuing to take greater form and shape in the reader's mind long after the book has been read. This, surely, is a central sign of successful fiction.
The story concerns David Schafer, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, a man who survived the Holocaust in Poland and became a leading politician in Israel. He marries, but his wife and their unborn child are murdered in a Palestinian terrorist bombing. Tragedy infects but also informs the life of David Schafer. Many years later he embraces Christ and, taking the name Elijah, becomes a monk. A satisfying contemplative life is interrupted by a call from Rome, where the Pope is concerned about a new world order dominated by a European president whose motives are lauded by the media and political establishment, but whose real intent has more than just a touch of sulphur about it.
It would surely be an act of the utmost cruelty to reveal very much more of the plot, though safe to say that it leaves ample room for a sequel. What has to be said is that this is much more than a religious novel. It is both a study and an indictment of our times. Elijah lives as a character but he is also a conduit for us, a prism through which the secular liberal world may be identified and criticized. Because this deeply intelligent and sensitive man has been outside "the world" for so long, he perceives the results of what has happened as the poisonous toxins of our decaying body politic have been pumped into the international bloodstream. We are so close that we merely observe; he is sufficiently distant to truly understand.
When, for example, Elijah arrives at Rome airport, the first city he has been to since entering the Israeli monastery decades ago, he is given a particularly zealous and clumsy search by customs officers who, it seems, take a particular delight in humiliating Christians. At the airport he walks past a poster featuring a nude couple embracing. The picture is advertising perfume. Behind it is a large picture of "two men lying on their backs in bed, arm in arm, gazing into each other's eyes, both sipping through straws from a single brandy glass." This advert is for cognac. Finally he is shocked by a poster promoting an "art happening". He is told that "the theatre company has rights to the abortuary dumpsters." The book is, of course, set in the future. But not the very distant future: Christians singled out as the sole group worthy of persecution, crass and obsessive commercialism dominating our senses, unethical profiteering even on death and destruction, and the dark cloak of moral relativism hiding it all from a dumbed-down society.
What O'Brien has also given us is a well-crafted and biting satire, a cutting indictment of our complacency as well as our cruelty. Jonathan Swift referred to the genre as "a glass", a mirror held up to society. Michael O'Brien's mirror is beautifully polished and reflects so well that it almost blinds. Some people will, of course, hide their eyes from the reflection because the sunshine of truth will hurt and offend their eyes. They are more comfortable in their dark sunglasses, so fashionable these days when the light may reveal so much that is painful. O'Brien has another book already published and two more ready for next year. Glory. Make us squint, dear Michael, make us squint.