No Other Life

by Brian Moore,
216 pages,
ISBN: 0394280040

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by Lawrence Scanlan

IN OTHER YEARS I have awaited the next Brian Moore novel as a baseball fan awaits spring training after a long white winter. The sense of reward was always heightened, even sweetened, by Mooreless months of denial. And for a long, long time, I admired the work of Brian Moore more than I did, say, baseball. No longer. And I wonder: is it I who have changed? Or Moore?

Now in his early 70s, the Belfast-born writer came to Canada in 1948 and took up Canadian citizenship before moving to California a decade later. His list of titles would make all but a few living authors green with envy. Moore has won two Governor General's Awards and a mittful of other prizes. He has shown wonderful range, this most Catholic of writers, and asked important questions -of faith and passion, of ambition and solitude, of the writer's place in society. He has written convincingly about women as well as men, his clean prose by turns playful and urgent. Like Graham Greene, who was an ardent admirer, Moore sketches characters in crisis: Ginger Coffey and Judith Hearne were true originals, and so was the man who made them.

Turn now to No Other Life, Moore's new novel. Set in the fictional Caribbean island of Ganae (Haiti-like in its savagery and poverty), the story is told by Father Paul Michel, a 65-year-old Quebec-born member of a Catholic teaching order. Three decades earlier, he had taken in a 13-year-old orphan named Jean-Paul Cantave, or Jeannot, whose aunt had turned him over "as casually as she would give away a puppy from a litter." Father Michel's protege is a brilliant student, a priest in the making, and there are hints dropped of his impending fame.

What attracts Cantave, and soon enough politicizes him, is a Bombaystyle slum in the city of Port Riche, where the poor congregate each morning waiting to be paired off, a crippled man with a deformed child, a woman covered in sores with one of the famine babies, a dwarf with a blind girl. Deals are made, tableaux of human misery are assembled.

The gap between the desperately poor and the obscenely rich is maintained by harsh military rule. Arrogant young thugs called bleus for their seersucker overalls roam the streets with Lee-Enfield rifles: a not-sosecret police. Like Haiti's dreaded Tonton Macoutes, they instil terror and stifle protest. The status quo is horror. The people need a saviour.

Cantave, now an ordained priest preaching liberation theology in a poor parish, draws assassins. That the killers' bullets miss him is taken as a sign of divine intervention. Soon afterward, a protest march on the palace results in the martyrdom of a young boy. When Cantave's call for restraint is heeded, he is quite sudden in control. The book's central questions, then, are moral ones: can anything but bloodshed result when the dispossessed are pushed too hard for too long? can the people's choice for ruler - even when that ruler is a humble priest - resist the people's call for revenge? We have here the makings of a Brian Moore novel.

Yet the book falters. The dialogue is often flat, the characters even flatter. No Other Life becomes a thin thriller, a chess game played between a priest who has come to possess power and the generals who want it back. The most interesting character in the book - and I am not sure this was intended - is Father Michel, who wrestles with his angel as another priest did in that earlier Moore classic, Catholics. The Cantave character is a particular disappointment; it is hard to imagine the poor being roused by his radio sermons, set off on the page in small type, like poetry.

And I grew weary of the author's bullet sentences. Consider this interior monologue, for example:

The Kingdom of God is founded on faith. Faith is reason's opposite. Jeannot believed that God had chosen him. Now he would use that belief to change the lives of others. At that moment I was besieged by doubts. But I had faith in him. And so, I hoped to change things.

On the other hand, Moore seems to come alive when he writes about the poor -"their bodies brittle from undernourishment, clustered around the embarking or descending travellers in a listless charade of begging for coins." And some of the old playfulness is still there: a reference to "cold heavens" recalls a title of his own and strikes me as self-parody. And when he writes "And no birds sang," it seems he is having fun at Farley Mowat's expense.

Perhaps No Other Life will send you back, as it did me, to Brian Moore's earlier work and the likes of Ginger Coffey. I am grateful for all that good work; but I am also grateful for baseball.


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