Enduring and Truthful Fictions

Today is Book Lovers’ Day, my friend Myriah just informed me, and I’m so glad she did. It’s actually one of two days that are celebrated for and by people like us. To mark the day I am re-posting an old book review I wrote, from 2009. It’s a response to three books, so we could think of it as a triple treat for our readers’ party:

Three Truthful Fictions

In early summer I read three works of fiction in a short space of time:

Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful by Alan Paton
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The Folding Cliffs by W.S. Merwin

These were all pretty dramatic stories of historical fiction. Paton’s book follows closely the events in South Africa mid-20th century. Hosseini writes about Afghanistan in the last 30 years, and Merwin’s book is an epic poem about Hawaii, mostly in the 19th century.

I was sitting around after surgery with my foot up, and that was what had made it possible for me spend more time reading and thinking. Some things I thought about: How funny that the settings of these thr3 truthful fictions picee books were at three corners of the globe. Obviously they were not part of any theme. So were there some ways they were alike? What made them all worth reading to the end, when so many books I’ve tried lately were not?

Suffering was a large part of all the stories. The Afrikaners in Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful were treating all people of color unjustly and inhumanely. Whites who did otherwise suffered along with the oppressed, and often sacrificed their careers, homes, and reputations.

All the women suffer miserably in A Thousand Splendid Suns. War and famine, selfish and sinful men and women supported by bad cultural traditions, all combine to keep the women trapped in complicated and painful predicaments. Factions of Muslims hate one another.

The Folding Cliffs makes vivid the way conquering peoples oppress the vanquished, all the while thinking it is “for their own good.”

What benefit is there in dwelling on Man’s Inhumanity to Man? Don’t we already know how wretched we are? If that were all one gets from these stories, I don’t think they would be worth reading, but there is another bigger part to all of them, and that is Man’s Love. Just as Christ gave His life in love for us suffering humans, so He gives grace to men to rise above their suffering, show compassion to their fellow man, and do deeds of mercy.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” said C.S. Lewis, and it is this courage that is shown by the young parents in Cliffs who flee to the hills and fight off government agents who are shooting at them, rather than have their family torn apart by the health officials who are shipping lepers off to Molokai like so many unclean animals. Their love is demonstrated in the test of courage.

In Land, the author and his companions find joy and fellowship in realizing the sacrificial, mercy-giving aspect of their humanity as they fight what seems to be a losing battle against political power. Perhaps they were living what Winston Churchill was talking about when he said, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”

Alan Paton in his autobiography Towards the Mountain writes of the experience:

“…the inhumanity of man to man could be made endurable for us only when we manifested in our lives the humanity of man to man….there is a wound in the creation and…the greatest use we could make of our lives was to ask to be made a healer of it.”
I haven’t lived with the kinds of suffering I read about, and that is partly why I think these writings are valuable, for as we read we take as our companions in mind and heart characters who are historically real or fictionally true, who can train us in Christian virtue.

Khaled Hosseini has given his countrymen and all of us a wonderful gift in the two books of his I am familiar with. In Kite Runner and in A Thousand Splendid Suns he paints a backdrop of horror, including much personal moral failure. Kite Runner exposed my own innate cowardice as I empathized with the protagonist, and as he was able to find healing and hope after repentance, I was also comforted.

In Suns the author gives a tender role model to women everywhere who are beaten down by life. The character of Miriam is the ultimate in misery, as she has no friends and no family who care about her, and she is barren, so her husband hates her. Then a young woman comes into her life, a woman who could easily slide into being another tormentor. But instead she shows kindness and becomes a true friend, and Miriam finds hope and courage, as well as other parts of her humanity and womanhood that had been obscured. She is transformed from a passive recipient of abuse into a woman who can return love, and she is happy, even in the face of continued abuse.

These stories have the potential to become part of the collective consciousness of a people, and help us to live more humanly, more humanely. I hope that Suns in particular can give vision to the women of Afghanistan, a vision of themselves as able to rise above their circumstances by means of love toward others.

We won’t eliminate the oppressors; our hope does not consist of that, as Father Alexander Schmemann has summarized:

“The fundamental Christian eschatology has been destroyed by either the optimism leading to the Utopia, or by the pessimism leading to the Escape. If there are two heretical words in the Christian vocabulary, they would be ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism.’ These two things are utterly anti-biblical and anti-Christian…. It is for us, Christians, to reconstruct this unique faith, in which there are no illusions, no illusions at all, about the evil.”

Keeping with the theme of inspiring fiction, I’ll end with a quote by Whittaker Chambers from Witness (which book I love, but it is not fiction) about a novel that was formative for him. I haven’t read Les Miserables, but I noticed a few years ago that at least three important writers I knew of had mentioned they read it more than once as children. Sorry, I can’t remember who the others were. Chambers describes what can happen when a good writer connects with the reader:les miz pic

“I read and reread Les Miserables many times in its entirety. It taught me two seemingly irreconcilable things–Christianity and revolution. It taught me first of all that the basic virtue of life is humility, that before humility, ambition, arrogance, pride and power are seen for what they are, the stigmata of littleness, the betrayal by the mind of the soul, a betrayal which continually fails against a humility that is authentic and consistent. It taught me justice and compassion, not a justice of the law, or as we say, human justice, but a justice that transcends human justice whenever humanity transcends itself to reach that summit where justice and compassion are one….”

4 thoughts on “Enduring and Truthful Fictions

  1. I wasn’t reading your column in 2009 so I am glad you reposted. I always enjoy book reviews. While familiar with these books, the authors and the titles, truthfully, I am glad you did the book review because now I don’t have to read them.

    All three topics and the books, I am sure are beautifully written, seem to really get to me more at this age. Man’s inhumanity to the human race.

    I know that when I read the Kite Runner, I was depressed for days.

    I have Les Miserables on my shelf. I pick it up and always put it back, along with Dr. Zhivago.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I always glean so much from you. I went to a used book store this week and on the shelf were 5 copies of Leif Engers, Peace Like a River. I thought that was interesting.

    Have a nice weekend.


  2. The 9th, today, is our 12th anniversary. While sorting through a box of Bob’s misc. pieces of this and that I found this quotation Bob cut out from somewhere:

    Never let anything so fill you with pain or sorrow so as to make you forget the joy of CHRIST RISEN. -Mother Teresa-


  3. Thank you for reposting this; like Kim, I had not seen it before. The very last line is my favorite. I have not read any of the books you mention here though I am familiar with some of them. I avoid them because I know they are too painful even though there is redemption and hope within them too. But this certainly speaks to where my heart has been lately with all the things going on right now. There is a weight of sorrow, not debilitating or all consuming, but requiring something of me in return (especially prayer) and I continue to ponder . . . I think Mother Teresa’s quote in another’s comment above says a lot. And much of the sorrow is because so many have no idea about that truth of Christ Risen. There is so much joy all around us!


  4. I can sympathize a bit with Kim’s and Sara’s comments. There seems to be already so much inhumanity and cruelty in our daily news, my leisure reading tends to be light and escape-oriented. Aren’t we blessed to have the Scriptures to give us real hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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