19 January 2017

Review: The Sparrow

The Sparrow The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that if we ever made it to another planet outside our solar system we would find the Jesuits already there waiting for us. Recently I mentioned this idea in conversation and discovered, to my delight, that someone had written just such a book. Naturally, I had to read it. And it is a very good read.

This is one of those rare books in which there are, intentionally, few surprises of external plot and action. As in Frank Herbert's Dune, the reader quite soon knows how the story will end. Indeed the first page tells the reader that the Jesuit mission to this new world will end disastrously, and a parallel is quickly suggested between the sufferings of the Jesuit Isaac Jogues among Mohawks in the Seventeenth Century and the Jesuit Emilio Sandoz on the planet Rakhat four hundred years later. Then there's the title, whose point is at last made explicitly:

"There's an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists."

"So God just leaves," John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. "Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!"

"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."

"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. " 'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.' "

"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.

They sat for a while, wrapped in their private musings.

We could do worse than to describe this book as just such a private musing, on that intensely private ground, between anger and desolation, where a sparrow such as Father Emilio might fall. And that makes it particularly interesting that no one in the room -- Jesuits all -- responds to Felipe's statement by quoting the next two verses of Matthew: "But the very hairs on your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore. Ye are of more value than many sparrows." And indeed the verse before the one quoted in The Sparrow makes clear that it is not physical but spiritual destruction that we should fear. From that God will save us, but still the sparrow will fall.

Perhaps another text is relevant here, too, since the whole point of the sparrow of Matthew is that it is not a human, but far less valuable, while the sparrow of this novel's title clearly seems to be a human, namely Father Emilio. For Hamlet likens himself to the sparrow of Matthew (5.2.165-170). In response to Horatio's intuition that he is in danger, Hamlet responds:

"...We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be."

And that may be the truest answer to this private musing. That the readiness is all. Let be.

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