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Note: In April, 2014, Author Deirdre Madden was INDUCTED into the Hennessy Literary Awards Hall of Fame, marking the 43rd year of this award which celebrates Irish writing.

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.” T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

There’s an irony to the Amazon reviews of this elegant, but unpretentious examination of time present, past, and future, which the author reveals through the most “normal” of families and the way they live their lives. A large number of reviewers have downgraded this book because it has “no plot,” “nothing happens,” there’s “not much point,” the language is “pedestrian,” and the story is too “domestic.” And yet those who like (and in some cases, even love) the book (on Amazon as well as in the professional press), praise this novel for some of these same qualities: its quiet, contemplative tone; the main character’s desire to preserve the best, most meaningful moments from his life while also wondering if he is remembering “correctly”; his examination of what people did and said in the past and how that affects his present views of them and the past; and his constant daydreaming. He is an ordinary man with an ordinary family – all of whom (with one obvious exception) are a bit more thoughtful and more sensitive than is common in most novels – or in most families -  people honest and open with their feelings, even though they are leading otherwise unremarkable lives. Though I am sad for the readers who will forget this book, that fact, ironically, is also part of the author’s point. We all remember from the present what we choose to remember, not necessarily what is “real,” and that, in turn, helps us to shape our futures.

For me, this was a rare and engaging novel with “voices” that speak directly from the characters’ hearts, and there is little sense that an author is present, pulling the strings and determining outcomes. It is 2006, and Ireland’s economy, the Celtic Tiger, is at its peak. Main character Fintan Terrence Buckley, age forty-seven, works as a legal advisor at an import/export firm in Dublin. Happily married for twenty-four years, he has a doting wife, one son out of college, one son just starting, and a seven-year-old daughter. Fintan, however, has been having some recent episodes in which words and language become strange to him as he stares at objects and people, and on one occasion, “It was as if the air had thinned out and the man [in front of him] was like something that had dropped out of the sky…” He is confused by his own reality and fascinated by the antique photographs at the restaurant where he has met this person. One photo from the past shows a terrible train accident at Harcourt Street Station in 1900, in which a locomotive slammed right through the wall and out the other side, incredibly without killing anyone. He also notices pictures of streets he has walked, past buildings he recognizes, though the people in the photographs are long dead. He ponders – in fact, questions – the reality of these scenes, just as he wonders about the reality of the man in front of him.

1900, a locomotive fails to stop at a station and plows through a wall. No one was killed in this horrific accident.

As the point of view changes from Fintan to members of his family, the reader comes to know Fintan’s mother Joan, with whom few get along.  Her memories of time are different, affecting her ability to relate to families in general and to her husband, a loving man whom she had married to escape her parents. Now a widow, she is enjoying her present, and thinks little about the past:  “There are worse things to be than a widow in your seventies.” Her unmarried daughter Martina, having returned from working in London after several years, has chosen not to live with her mother, but with her Aunt Beth.  Martina has secrets which  have had a profound impact on her life. When Fintan later visits Martina and Beth, he finds that little has changed in Beth’s house:  “There is still that same air of the past that Fintan remembers from his first visits here, of the quality of time itself seeming different in these rooms.”  Beth is still celebrating her twenty-year marriage, when she was in her fifties, to a man she adored, and though he has died, he is very much still alive to Beth in their house.

Statue of Wolfe Tone, which Fintan notices as he walks through St. Stephen Green. The statue is also known, ironically, as "Tone Henge."

When Fintan asks Martina about some old family photographs, the themes of time and reality develop further.  Who is the young woman from a hundred years ago in one of the sepia photos who looks so much like Martina?  Who are the people in these family photographs?  Are we just passing through our lives and the places we see, and if so, what does the existence of a “real” photograph do to our perceptions?  Or does the photograph illustrate reality at a particular moment of time, a kind of reality which we can never really know by looking backward from another time?  Then again, does our present grow out of a kind of spooling from a larger past, affecting not just us but other people, too?   With Fintan’s sudden interest in color photography, the question of reality and time and our perceptions of both develop still further.  He is particularly intrigued with the early use of three separate black and white photographs taken with three separate filters which, when reprinted through three similar filters become one single, colored photograph, a new reality.

Fintan finds the color photo work of "Russian Gotkin" astonishing, and it may have been similar to this photo. A picture of Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara, taken in 1911. This is an early color photograph taken bySergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire. Three black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters. The three resulting images were projected through similar filters. Combined on the projection screen, they created a full-color image.

As the novel reveals secrets and relationships from both the distant past and the present, near the conclusion of the novel, the author herself becomes a character, narrating the future of these characters whom we have come to know so well and telling us what happens to them as their realities change. With the banking crisis in Ireland and subsequent bankruptcy, families find they have no security, and students graduate and cannot find jobs, often leaving the country and their families to find work, examples the author gives to show how little control we all have regarding our futures, no matter how much we may study and try to learn from the past. “We all of us look towards a personal future that is imaginary…To engage too much with the future, in all its fragility and uncertainty, can make us feel dizzy with unease. Let us think, then, of the past, so that we may speak of real things that have actually happened; conscious always that the past, like the future, also shimmers behind the veil of imagination.”

Young homeless man in Dublin, 2008. after the banks crashed. Photo by Kim Haughton for the Guardian.

Philosophical, accessible, filled with characters the reader comes to know intimately and to care about, lively in its questioning of reality, thoughtful in its examination of the past, and beautifully written in language which is remarkably simple, considering the themes, Time Present and Time Past is a novel which I found completely engaging, one which manages to be charming in its meditations about life without ever being pedantic.

Panorama of Howth, a few miles outside of Dublin, where Fintan, Colette, and their family live.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from https://www.tcd.ie

The locomotive crash of 1900 is found on http://www.rareirishstuff.com

The Wolfe Tone memorial statue from St. Stephen Green, sometimes called “Tone Henge,” appears on http://www.welovedonegal.com/

The three-filter photograph, developed by Russians in the early 20th century, is from http://en.wikipedia.org The Russian Gotkin, whom Fintan found astonishing, used the same method as is seen in this photograph.  I have been unable to identify who this Russian Gotkin is. Wiki says this is a picture of Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara, taken in 1911. This is an early color photograph taken bySergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire. Three black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters. The three resulting images were projected through similar filters. Combined on the projection screen, they created a full-color image.

A young homeless man shows the effects of the crash of 2008 on the banking system of Ireland.  Many other young men left the country to find work elsewhere.  http://www.theguardian.com

The panoramic view of Howth by doyler79 appears here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howth

Note: Antonio Skarmeta was WINNER of Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2014.  In 2011, his novel The Days of the Rainbow, was WINNER of the  Premio Iberoamericano Planeta-Casa de América de Narrativa, one of the richest prizes in the literary world (worth $200,000).

“I’m the village schoolmaster.  I live near the mill.  Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.  I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.  My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things: the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early morning frost…”

This village schoolmaster, named Jacques, already sounds old, as this small novella begins.  In actuality, he is only twenty-one, however, almost a boy, but one who has already seen too much of the sameness of rural life.  He has returned to Contulmo, his rural village in southern Chile after college, to be close to his mother, a woman who launders sheets for a living.  His French father left them the year before to return to France, shortly after Jacques received his elementary teaching certificate from a college in Santiago.  “I got off the train and he got on, boarding the very same car…I didn’t even get a chance to open my suitcase and show him my diploma.”  Now Jacques sees no opportunities to broaden his view of life.  He does get occasional translation jobs, translating French poetry into Spanish, but these poems are simple, “the things the people around here can understand.  Poems by Rene Guy Cadou, village verses, not cathedrals of words,” like the monumental poems published in the Santiago newspapers.  Though he is friendly with the local miller, who was his father’s closest friend, he himself is lonely and  always sad.  “Ever since Dad went away, I want to die.”

In looking for a photo of the author, I discovered that virtually every photo of him shows him smiling, a welcome change from the norm.

His life changes when one of his students, a fifteen-year-old boy wants to have a man-to-man conversation with him, then asks outright if Jacques has been to the whorehouse in Angol, the next big town a train-ride away.  The boy wants to know what it costs for a woman.  Soon Jacques sets out with the miller to find the answer, a quest which produces answers to some questions he has not even thought to ask.

In this simple, even delicate, novella, author Antonio Skarmeta explores in the clearest, cleanest possible language – language which even the citizens of Contulmo would understand – some of life’s biggest questions and the answers which Jacques discovers in the course of one week.  With an honesty which betrays no trace of self-consciousness or sense that he is “teaching” anything, Jacques explores big questions of identity, place, responsibility, sex, love, and reconciliation.

Contulmo: Almost all the photos of this town show these few buildings from one angle or another.

In many ways, the novel is reminiscent of another novel by Skarmeta, one which he developed into a screenplay for Il Postino: The Postman. In this story, the young son of a fisherman becomes a messenger boy for Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet living in exile on an island off the coast of Italy (Capri).  Like Jacques, the young fisherman is looking for more from life than what he is finding in his community, and as he discovers love, he, too, finds his world changed.  That story, like A Distant Father, is also simple and powerful in its yearning for change but acceptance of reality.

Blogger Liz Caskey talks about traditional baking methods in rural Chile. See photo credits.

When, at last Jacques has the chance to go by train to the next town to a whorehouse for the first time, he is astonished to discover that his father is living in the town and managing a cinema, the point from which the rest of the action evolves.  In a lovely conversation in which both characters reveal their heartfelt feelings, Jacques discovers all the many aspects of his father’s life about which he has known nothing and which come to him as surprises.  Later on the train home, he develops a fever, and in the midst of it, he records this thought:  “It’s not the case that words circle uncertainly around subjects.  It’s the world itself that’s uncertain; words are precise.”  When he decides to take action on several different fronts, his coming-of-age is complete.

While the engineer is waiting to drive the train from Angol back to Contulmo, he covers himself with a traditional Araucan poncho and nods off to sleep.

Skarmeta reveals more in one sentence than most other authors do in paragraphs or pages. Always unpretentious in his language and clear in his meanings, he presents his story in ways so close to real life that it becomes difficult to remember, as one is reading and imagining these scenes, that this is a novel and not real life.   One enters into the moment with the author, and there is no sense that he is in any way separate from the story which you are sharing with him.  It is a stunning experience, close to drama in its impact and in its well-wrought and very visual scenes.  A Distant Father connects with the reader directly and immediately, its emotions very close to the surface and its impact powerful.

A Distant Father can be read in about an hour, or a bit more, and when I finished, I gave the book to my husband (a former English major) who usually prefers non-fiction to fiction these days.  He read it straight through, unable or unwilling to stop.  Though we have both tried to think of other writers who can perform miracles like this, neither of us can recall any other writer whose effect is so instantaneous and so wonderfully effective on an emotional level.  Totally lacking in sentimentality, the novella is powerful and emotionally resonant, an addition to my Favorites List for 2014.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo comes from http://letrasyceluloide.blogspot.com/ It is virtually impossible to find a picture of him without seeing a smile on his face.

Photos of Contulmo, Jacques’s town, seem to be focused on this block of buildings.  Almost every photo shows this block from some angle.  http://diario.latercera.com/

A baker at work, like the baker who was friends of Jacques and his father, is shown on this blog: http://eatwineblog.com by Liz Caskey.

An exhibition of old Araucan ponchos was held recently here:  http://proa.org/

One of the works for which Skarmeta is famous is the novel Ardiente Paciencia (Burning Patience), which became the basis for the 1985 movie, Il Postino: The Postman:  http://en.wikipedia.org/

Note: Laidlaw was WINNER of the Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Silver Dagger Award for 1977.  The Papers of Tony Veitch was WINNER of the same award in 1983.  A skilled writer in numerous genres, the author has also been WINNER of both the Saltire Society “Fletcher of Saltoun Award” for his “outstanding contribution to Scotland’s life and culture” in 2013, and WINNER of the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award for Writing.

“[For Laidlaw] detective work was a delicate symbiosis with the criminal world, a balancing of subtle mutual respects.  You hoped to give small to get back big.  It was a matter of not breaking a fragile web you were both part of, a repeated laying of the senses to different strands of that web to catch what was going, not the axeman cometh.”

In the second of the three Laidlaw novels, written between 1977 and 1992, author William McIlvanney, considered the “father of Tartan noir,” continues a series that is so masterfully written that calling his novels “noir mysteries” underestimates their universal literary power for the reader.  Though few American readers know of these now-classic  novels, Europa Editions has decided to change that by reprinting all of them, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a noir novel or who loves mysteries is in for a rare treat.  McIlvanney’s ability to describe, to connect even the homeliest and most ordinary details to the grand themes of literature, to create unique characters who linger in the memory, and to make his plots come alive, often with humor, is rare, if not unparalleled.  A gifted writer of many genres, McIlvanney abandoned the Laidlaw noir mysteries after his third novel, Strange Loyalties, to concentrate instead on his poetry, journalism, screenwriting, and non-fiction, winning prizes in all of these genres.

Laidlaw, a Glasgow policeman, like so many noir “heroes,” is alienated, unfaithful to his wife, often inebriated in private life, and willing to do whatever is necessary to secure justice for its own sake.  He sees injustice within the “polis” system almost as often as he does in the criminal world, which he investigates tirelessly, never coming to easy conclusions which would end a troublesome case, even when encouraged to do so by his superiors.  His assistant, young Brian Harkness, has

“an almost irresistible compassion for him.  Laidlaw came on hard, could be a bastard, sometimes gave the impression that if God turned up he’d want Him to take a lie-detector test.  But he so obviously cared about people, was so unmistakably hurt by what happened to them, sometimes through his doing, that he would have put a stone under pressure to feel things.”

Entrance to the Royal Infirmary, where Eck Adamson lay dying. Photo by "postdlf."

As the novel opens, Mickey Ballater, a “hard man” who has just arrived back in his home town, takes a moment to re-acclimate himself to Glasgow: “The place had the gritty untidiness of belonging to no one, a litter bin for wasted time.”  Looking for a man named Paddy Collins, he barges into an apartment, slaps a woman around, and then learns that Paddy is in the Victoria Infirmary, near death.  Laidlaw appears in the next scene, summoned by a reporter who tells him that another old man is hospitalized and wants to see him.  Arriving at the infirmary, Laidlaw thinks about how he copes with the horrifyingly exotic deaths that he sees in his work, “brutality [that] made the Marquis de Sade look like the tourist he was.  Once you knew that’s where we live, you had to accept the need to face what you would rather not see.”  The old man, barely conscious, is close to death and incoherent, but Laidlaw is able to hear him say that the wine he drank “wisny wine.”  A vagrant, the old man, Eck Adamson, is later determined to have died of poisoning.  Laidlaw begins to wonder whether the deaths of Paddy Collins and Eck Adamson are related.

Milligan meets Macey at the Albany Hotel, "a fortress to the good life." Here Stan Balfe greets hotel guests in 1975.

As Laidlaw begins to investigate these two events, the author introduces a wide range of characters – a reporter for the Glasgow Herald;  Laidlaw’s wife (with whom he lives some of the time but from whom he is emotionally estranged);  the overlapping social groups which connect through the local bars; the “hard men” who control crime and enforce their wills on the populace; the police department with its rivalries; the prostitutes, college students, and young people experimenting with political philosophies; and the “urban Bedouins,” like Eck Adamson, who ‘shift locations [though] their vagrancy has trade-routes.  Places are in for a season and then get abandoned, like spas where the springs have dried.”  The unique local dialects used by the different groups appear in their conversations, adding to the atmosphere, while occasionally slowing down the action as the reader must “translate” what the characters are saying.  Soon the action is centered on finding Tony Veitch, a smart, educated young man from a “good” family who has also vanished, and everyone, on all levels, seems to be looking for him, wondering how he is connected to the murders of the Paddy Collins and Eck Adamson.

The etchings and paintings of Norman Ackroyd at the Albany Hotel lounge were "like black holes in which whispers of light and shape were conspiring to survive."

As is so often the case, one of the senior police officers is keeping an eye on Laidlaw, insisting that Laidlaw inform him of whatever he is investigating. He wants to control the investigation, and, more importantly, he wants total credit for any success that might result. When a third murder occurs, Laidlaw confronts Milligan, his superior, who boasts that “I found him.  First.  That’s more than you did.”  Laidlaw is infuriated by the attitude:  “He’s just a corpse to you, isn’t he?” and when Milligan begins crowing again about his success in finding him, Laidlaw shows his darkly ironic humor:  “You should get them to give you the [corpse’s] head for above your mantelpiece.  A wee housewarming present for your wife.”

The Kibble Palace at the Botanical Gardens, where Laidlaw meets with a nervous informer.

Lively and atmospheric scenes, filled with unforgettable descriptions, keep the novel on a literary plane rare for mystery writing.  McIlvanney, a former teacher, includes some history, poetry, references to artwork, and song lyrics to add to the mood of the narrative, going beyond the obvious and the ordinary to present a complete picture of life in Glasgow.  The plot of this novel is more complex than it is in the earlier Laidlaw, and the depiction of Laidlaw himself grows here as he refuses to be satisfied with an “approximation of the truth” when he believes the “facts” might have been manipulated. The Papers of Tony Veitch is a top notch noir mystery, a continuation of the series which even newcomers will enjoy on all levels.

ALSO by William McIlvanney:  LAIDLAW

Photos, in order: The author’s photo accompanies an article on why McIlvanney voted for Scottish independence in the voting this past week:  http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk

The front entrance of the Royal Infirmary appears on http://commons.wikimedia.org The photographer is “Postdlf”:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Postdlf

Stan Balfe greets guests outside the Albany Hotel in 1975.  In the novel, Milligan meets Macey at the Albany Hotel, “a fortress to the good life.”  http://www.oldglasgowpubs.co.uk/

Etchings  and prints by Norman Ackroyd “hung round the walls of the [Albany Hotel] lounge like black holes in which whispers of light and shape were conspiring to survive.”  http://www.northhousegallery.co.uk/

The Kibble Palace at the Botanical Gardens was a safe place for Laidlaw to meet with an informant:  http://www.attractions.glasgowvant.com/

“Remember my story? I had a story.

A beginning, a middle, and an end.

I told my story, I sang it, I meant it,

It was my only story,

And now I repent it.

All that I knew, I thought it was true,

I don’t know anymore what I think,

And do you?”

The enigmatic ending of this poem sums up the action and presentation in this noir graphic novel, the first such attempt by the legendary Jules Feiffer.  Now eighty-five, Feiffer has already won prizes in all the many genres in which he has worked:  The George Polk Award for his cartoons, a 1961 Academy Award for the short animated film Munro,  the Obie for the play Little Murders, the Outer Circle Critics Awards for another play of The White House Murder, and the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons.   For good measure, he has also won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America and the 2012 John Fischetti Lifetime Achievement Award for his edgy editorial cartooning.  Still active and anxious to start something new, Feiffer says in an interview* that as he aged into his eighties, he found his interests “shifting back to what I loved most: the classic adventure strips of  Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates,” something he began to explore more fully and which led eventually to this full-length graphic novel.

Here Feiffer tries to do it all.  Dedicating the novel to writers Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain and to film directors John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, and their many classic films (Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce), Feiffer attempts to create a full-scale noir novel, with all its dark action and sad characters, and then bring it to life visually in black and white drawings for dramatic, rather than purely literary, effect.  The result is an unusual and challenging novel, full of adventures affecting down-at-the-heels characters, plenty of violence of the “blam, blam, blam” variety, some grim humor, lots of “ha, ha, ha, ha” moments, twists and turns regarding plot and characters, and surprises galore.

Part I, Bay City Blues, 1933, features Annie Hannigan, a jitterbugging, shoplifting teen who wants to kill her mother for returning to work to support them after her father, “the only honest cop in the history of prohibition,” was murdered.  Her mother Elsie has taken a job as a typist/receptionist for Neil Hammond, a drunkard who specializes in “confidential investigations” and in demeaning behavior and sexist remarks, often directed toward Elsie.  She stays on the job because Neil has promised to help her solve her husband Sam’s murder.  The job becomes more complicated when Neil assigns Elsie to set up a phony casting office to try to find a tall, blonde woman, over six feet tall, being sought by a wealthy client.  Later, Neil, in debt to former bootlegger Tim Gaffney, indulges his gambling habit by requiring Elsie to accompany him to a prizefight, depicted with suitably action-packed graphics featuring lightweight fighter Eddie “The Dancing Master” Longo, and leading to the discovery of the client’s true identity.

Part II, “Hooray for Hollywood” takes place ten years later.  Annie Hannigan is in Hollywood as a comedy writer-producer of a show called “Shut-Up, Artie,” named for her timid boyfriend from Part I, and broadcast on radio to the troops fighting overseas.  Artie, her ex-boyfriend, is now a soldier in the jungle.  Ironically, Annie now has a small son, Sammy, who throws tantrums because he loves and wants his granny, Elsie, who works in a low-paying job at a movie studio, where Eddie Longo is now a star in B-movies and Tim Gaffney is hanging around looking for attention.  A USO trip to the island of Tarawa brings much of the action to a head.

The novel vividly depicts the atmosphere and the cultural attitudes of the 1930s and 1940s, both in terms of its overly complicated plot and frantic action, and in terms of the drawings which accompany it.  The almost hallucinogenic activity on the page can be  headache-making as the pages’ irregularly shaped frames impinge upon each other and compete for attention against white dialogue balloons.  The sharp contrasts within the illustrations, and Feiffer’s quick sketches, force the reader to go faster and faster to keep up with the story, and for me, at least, much was lost in this hurried process.  The dialogue, written in small print, is forced to compete against much larger, black “Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha’s” “B-O-O-O-O’s” “Oh, Shut-Ups,” and dozens of “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!’s” written within the frames, and in one six-page section, forty BLAM!s in large print dominate the drawings in which an especially important scene is taking place in the dialogue.

Ultimately, I ended up reading this book three times to be sure I really understood what was happening, and I’m still not sure I did!  Part of the problem is that the female characters, though differentiated by personality, look very similar visually, especially when rendered in black-and-white, and I had a difficult time keeping them straight, especially when Part II happens ten years later, and the characters have all aged.  With much happening within a Hollywood atmosphere, where costumes and disguises are a way of life, the problems of who is who becomes even more challenging.  Those who love frantic, action-packed novels and films will probably love this for its movement, its wild plot twists, its dark humor, and its lack of subtlety.  Those who prefer a slower, more measured development, may end up reading it three times.

*An interview with Jules Feiffer is on: (http://www.newyorker.com

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/

The author’s dancing photo is from http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/

The prizefighting photo from KILL MY MOTHER may be found on http://www.newyorker.com/

Note: A writer of both fiction and non-fiction, James Carroll is a WINNER of many prizes in both genres.

“The Pope?…Haven’t you noticed? After the Nazis massacred those saps at Ardeatine, the Pope condemned not the Nazis but the Partisans, for bringing it on themselves! Yesterday, with two hundred thousand people on their knees in St. Peter’s Square, including lots of teary GIs, he blessed the Krauts for sparing Rome, without a word of thanks to us. Up there on his balcony, above it all.”—American Col. Peter Mates, in OSS deep cover.

The constant machinations of the Vatican and its hierarchy as they played all sides during the post-war years of World War II emphasize the fact that the Nazi Holocaust – ruthless, coldblooded, and almost impossible to believe in its inhumanity – was only one of the horrors faced by Jews in the 1940s. The Holy See, dedicated to the Gospel of love and charity, and committed to working with the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden, became so involved in international politics and so protective of its own power and relationships within Germany and Italy that it contributed to another whole level of international abuse of the Jews. Pope Pius XII, who had been papal nuncio to Germany from 1917 – 1929, spoke fluent German and had long-standing relationships with all the members of the church hierarchy in Germany, and many of them accompanied him to Rome when he became Pope and stayed with him for the rest of his life. Their attitudes had been formed during their years in Germany, and many people there believed that the Jews’ goal was to destroy Christianity. The institutional anti-Semitism which worked its way into the church is one of the primary subjects of this dramatic and eye-opening novel by former priest James Carroll.

The Holy See was not alone in its anti-Semitism even after the Nazi atrocities were revealed with incontrovertible documentation. Most countries, including the United States, would not accept the boatloads of refugees who wanted to escape for their lives, the US ultimately welcoming only a few thousand of the millions of imperiled Jews to an unused base in Fort Ontario, New York. Instead, the leaders of well-meaning nations established organizations within Europe, like the War Refugee Board sponsored by the US, to deal with the problems within Europe, leaving their directors to negotiate with all the postwar governments and partisan groups operating in Europe in order to feed and try to house the thousands of refugees. Partisans from many countries, operating freely, were often looking for revenge for atrocities in other parts of Europe, and no one knew who they were or where they would strike next. As arguments arose over jurisdictions and who was doing what among the Allied groups trying to help, Nazis, including war criminals, were obtaining passports secretly from sympathetic passport officials in countries across Europe, including the Vatican. As they were escaping from Europe, usually to South America, thousands of new refugees from Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary were arriving as they escaped from Russian Communists on the move.

Gen. Mark Clark of the US liberates Rome, in violation of his express orders from the British Allied Command

James Carroll uses his knowledge of the church and the bureaucracy at the Holy See to illustrate all these postwar complications, creating vivid characters who, themselves, are not perfect. Twenty-eight-year-old law school graduate David Warburg, working for the US Treasury Department, opens the novel when he meets with his mentor, Harold Gardner; with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury; and with a third man, whom he later discovers is Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress. Warburg then learns that he will head up the War Relief Board in Europe. On the plane to Rome, he meets Monsignor Kevin Deane, sometimes referred to as “Spellman’s jockey” because of his work as assistant to New York’s Archbishop Spellman, the person who raised more money for the Vatican relief agency than anyone else in the world. Deane is going to Rome to head up the Catholic Relief Services. Also working for the US is fifty-year-old Colonel Peter Mates, who had been supplying Yugoslav partisans earlier in the war and who is now with Civil Affairs, working in deep cover for the OSS.

Think of these children when you read of the atrocities committed by a Franciscan priest at Sisak in Croatia.

While these Americans are preparing for their new jobs, Marguerite d’Erasmo, working with the Croce Rosa (Red Cross), appears at the hangar when they land, seeking food for the over one thousand untended orphans in her relief camp at Quirinal Gardens. Marguerite has recently returned to Rome after working with a guerrilla band on the border of Italy and Yugoslavia, a place where she saw the partisans with whom she’d been working commit a cold-blooded massacre. Shaken to the core, she takes dangerous actions, but this atrocity she has witnessed and its aftermath permanently affect her life, long after her escape back to Rome to a convent controlled by the Vatican.  Marguerite and her partisan lover also have investigated the atrocities at Sisak, a camp for young children, some as young as three, run by the Croatian “ustashe” under the leadership of a Franciscan priest named Vukas, who insists that the children are all well cared for and that it is the Serb Communists who are the “beasts.” Vukas becomes the prototypical sadist, a man so lacking in any kind of human feeling that it defies belief that he could have been a priest. Two other characters also appear with Marguerite throughout these plot threads – Padre Antonio, Marguerite’s long-time and much beloved old priest, and Giacomo Lionni, a Jew who has hidden other Jews in the catacombs and collected names of still others in need of protection.

This photo accompanies a story about Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden and his efforts to save the Jews. He was eventually captured by the Russians and vanished from sight. Click here for link to story.

The complexities of this post-war era add to the novel’s power, since any confusion the reader has also reflects the difficulties of everyone else in this post-war mess as they try to do what is right –for humanity, themselves, or their particular partisan goals; for innocent refugees caught in terrible events; for the good of their country; or for their religion. Unfortunately, the goal for many is also affected by their anti-Semitic beliefs about the dangers the Jews represent as a group. With real people adding a sense of realism to the action and actual events controlling many aspects of the plot, James Carroll creates a novel which documents little known aspects of post-war Europe, creating an indictment not only of the papacy and the actions of the pro-German clergy, but also of the United States, Europe, and South America for failing to act strongly enough and fast enough. Were it not for Swedish ambassador Raoul Wallenberg and his untiring efforts to provide passports and passage for refugees to get to Sweden, one can only wonder how many other needless deaths occurred long after the Nazis were defeated.

The Great Synagogue of Rome. To enlarge, double- click here, then double-click again on the small photo which appears on your screen. The full screen photo is breath-taking

Photos, in order: The author’s photo and an interview with him appear here:  http://michaeloloughlin.


Gen. Mark Clark enters Rome to liberate it on June 4, 1944, in disobedience to the British Allied Command which was sending him north.  http://www.paradoxplace.


These young children from the Sisak camp lived under the aegis of a sadistic Franciscan priest.  Think of them when you read of the atrocities committed by a this priest in Croatia.  http://www.memorialmuseums.org/

Raoul Wallenberg, representing Sweden, saved thousands of refugees by giving them Swedish passports to a new life.  He disappeared when he was captured by the Russians, never heard of again. Click here for story.   http://news.bbc.co.uk

The Great Synagogue of Rome.  Click this photo first, and when the new page opens, double click on the photo there for a full-size photo of the interior. http://www.infocenters.co.il/

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