The Sparrow

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell, 1996
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

Globalization has accomplished many things in the seventeen years since the end of the Cold War, but one of the less expected is the standardization of niceness. Any nation’s folk music can now be had on CD in luscious, soporific, over-Celted arrangements; any religious tradition can, it seems, be subsumed under the category of spirituality, a noble word but one which has come too often to mean only the vaguest sort of emotional uplift. The jaws of globalization crop the spikiest plants with dispatch. This is not always and everywhere bad, of course. But in a world where specific forms of sensibility are becoming ever rarer, it becomes easier to applaud some of the most specific of all, the more uncompromising the better, even while wondering how long they will hang on and who possibly wishes them gone. No matter who does, one becomes more interested in those folkways which are just too thorny, too resiliently themselves, ever to be munched to nothing by globalization; they will either survive as themselves, or disappear.

For instance, you can’t play a bombard melodiously. The over-Celted version of Breton music has been known to try to do so; the result may indeed be sweet and sad and about as authentic as candied horseshit. The very recognizable Breton instrument, which I’ve heard has been known, affectionately or less so, as “Trouz Bras” — Big Noise — is only authentic if it is dissonant. The range of notes available to it is not limitless, but the notes are very powerful, and every one is meant to be played loud. The bombard is some ten times harder to play than a bagpipe. Part of the difficulty lies in the physical force and control it requires; part in the fact that so far as I can tell, it normally plays against the melody, not mellifluously with it in the uillean-like manner we hear it played today in Breton-based pop. Played right, it can split any melody down the middle and clear a space to go its own way. Truly authentic Breton music thus has a unique tension, with the Breton bagpipe or biniou starting its business and then learning that the melody does not belong to it but to Trouz Bras. Though overpowering until one gets used to it, the bombard is not monotonous when played deftly: it is capable of the finest variations on themes. It also is awesome in expressing grief, though the discipline required to play it means that one will not let oneself go. This listener will not soon forget the late Marc Robine’s version of “Pelot de Hennebont,” the archetypical Breton song about a naïve young soldier, in which the appearance of a faraway bombard makes it quite clear that Pelot will not be coming home.

If the bombard is impossible to flossy up with world-music airs and graces, the same can be said about a form of spirituality which must rank as being as far from New Age (the intellectual equivalent of world-music) as one can possibly get. You won’t find the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, once the formidable Basque warrior and adventurer Iñigo Loyola, on many bookshelves marked “Spirituality,” although the romance of the elite missionary order Loyola founded after being shot off his horse with a cannonball — the Society of Jesus, more often known as the Jesuits— still has some cachet among lay people. It is a spirituality emphasizing personal discipline, intellectualism and a unique mixture of freethinking and Catholic conformity, with a martial flavor that has hung around since Loyola himself. C. G. Jung named Loyola as an archenemy, and indeed the Jesuits have gotten in trouble with nearly everyone down the line. Near where I grew up in northern Maine, Mount Desert Island received its first white settlers in the form of a French Jesuit mission. Most were eventually massacred by the British, but not before naming the island: its original French name is Île des Monts Deserts, “island of deserted mountains,” a far more desolate and poetic title than the English version.

Something of this element of duress is inescapable in Jesuit spirituality, although in practice it consists more in introspection, contemplation and the love of hard work. Ora est labora, “Work is prayer,” is a Jesuit saying. One of the Jesuit mottos is “Men astutely trained in letters and fortitude.” The poetry of the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins is known for a quality that his friend, Canon Richard Dixon, described as follows: “something I cannot describe, but know to myself by the inadequate word terrible pathos — something of what you call temper in poetry: a right temper which goes to the point of the terrible: the terrible crystal.” A late sequence of poems on Hopkins’ lifelong depression have come to be known as the “terrible sonnets,” and the most terrible of all is the one known as “Carrion Comfort,” which deserves to be quoted in full:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? Oh which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

This poem reads like a blow to the gut, forbidding of sentimental emotion. But I have heard “Carrion Comfort” recited in a very emotional manner, by a reader who obviously adored it. I remember thinking that this was understandable but mistaken. It is possible, indeed indicated, to be moved by Hopkins’ “terrible crystal” while recognizing something in it that forbids pity rather as the notes of the bombard forbid any real opposition. It’s this lack of self-pity that stands out about Ignatian spirituality, especially since the history of the Society of Jesus includes a larger than usual number of men who made the ultimate sacrifice. The human stories in the annals of Jesuitana are often severe; at times they are sickeningly cruel, but they can be quite impressive, with many examples of courage beyond the ordinary.

Mary Doria Russell has understood this; and seldom has a book come on the scene that this reader wanted more badly to like. The author herself comes off as extremely likable based on the wit, intelligence, and compassion displayed in this book and those which have followed. Her last two books, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day, are very solid achievements; and in some ways, so is The Sparrow, her famous science fiction novel about a doomed Jesuit mission to space. The plot is reasonably well known to readers of science fiction, and will be very well known to readers of missionary stories. A band of Jesuits led by a heroic figure, Father Emilio Sandoz, are dispatched to make contact with intelligent aliens. The aliens could wish the Jesuits in the toilet, in theory, but they don’t: they’re keen to meet the newcomers, eager to incorporate them into their society, which is unfortunately alien enough in moral terms that the spacefarers do not understand the danger they are in until it is too late. Only Sandoz returns, crippled by severe torture and refusing to tell anyone what has happened. His return sets the scene at the beginning; the rest of the novel consists in an investigation on the part of the Society of Jesus to find out what went so wrong, and Sandoz’s memories telling us, bit by bit, what did.

A writer undertaking such a novel in the twenty-first century — The Sparrow was published in 1997, and takes place a few decades after our current epoch — faces several challenges. Considering the richness of this material, it’s surprising that there have been so few recent attempts to make fiction out of the Society of Jesus and its often sobering history. Some ten years before The Sparrow, Brian Moore published a well-received attempt in Black Robe, based on Francis Parkman’s The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century (itself based on the original reports of the missionaries to “New France”). Moore’s book staked everything on the drama of the confrontation between the religion of the Native peoples and the early French missionaries. His narrative force was won, in this reader’s opinion, at the price of Orientalizing the Native peoples: their religion never rises above the level of folklore as defined by outsiders. The folkloristic quality has shifted focus in The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russell writes from a time when the authority of the Catholic Church has weakened sufficiently for its folk elements to predominate in the minds of many American Catholics. The most famous Catholic mentioned in its pages is not John Paul II or St. Ignatius, but Guido Sarducci. If it is, or should be, a first rule for anyone writing about Jesuits not to have one of them say “The end justifies the means” (as one of Moore’s does), one can cheerfully report that nobody says anything like that in The Sparrow.

What is lacking, unfortunately, is what was lacking in Moore’s novel regarding the Native peoples: what we miss in The Sparrow is a sense of the Jesuit order as separate from the author’s preoccupations. Sex is chief among these, rather predictably, and somewhat disappointingly. For this reader the treatment of sex in The Sparrow (as opposed to rape, another significant concern) fails by virtue of being adolescent, not because there is also some question of its aptness. This is a distraction but not a fatal flaw. Much of the characterization of both humans and aliens is well-realized and attractive and one can excuse some of Russell’s “recovering-Catholic” preoccupation with sex as an understandable tic, if an irritating one. But it seems a good jesuitical potboiler must inevitably end in a bit of bovver — as did Brian Moore’s Black Robe, too, and countless Victorian thrillers in which the “black robes” were both heroes and villains — and here the real problems begin. To show a human being brought to the point at which we find Sandoz in the very beginning, and whose provenance will be explained over the course of the novel, requires more of the author than anything else. John Fraser, in his magnificent critical study, Violence in the Arts, has defined the challenge as well as anyone: “The true mental daring and hardihood are those displayed when the artist simultaneously acknowledges the worth of what is being violated and yet presents unflinchingly its violation. And it hurts the reader or viewer to be involved in that process and to feel the broader implications of the violation — to feel that in some measure it is the natural order of things that is being violated.” Difficult at any time, it is even more difficult in portraying the violation of a person who does not live by what the twenty-first century perceives as the natural order of things.

Up to a point, Russell succeeds in this much at least. Her characters are appealing and mostly believable (though one could wish that Sandoz were less physically attractive, a cheap way of causing other characters to pay attention to him). In going against the black-robed martinet stereotype of Jesuit explorers, Russell works very hard to humanize her characters and provides down-to-earth touches that will be recognized by anyone with a passing acquaintance with these “men astutely trained.” (When The Sparrow was published, “Mary Doria Russell” was assumed by some in the Society of Jesus to be the pseudonym of a Jesuit author.) We never doubt that Sandoz has found his calling in the Society of Jesus, or that he is a complex, difficult and charismatic man. We thus take it personally when Sandoz pays with rather a lot for his calling, as did Iñigo Loyola, Jacques Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues among the Hurons, and the Jesuits of Frenchman’s Bay. In a sequel, The Children of God, Russell allows for Sandoz to find some healing, but for many readers the tragedy Sandoz suffers in The Sparrow will remain the last word. Russell cannot be accused of not hitting us hard.

However, there are other difficulties. Fraser spells many of them out, and chief among them is the fact that in order to transcend mere pathos, some lasting intellectual grasp on what is at issue is required for us to absorb scenes of violation with more than a native emotional reaction. No more than the latter may be required for a work to be memorable, of course, if the content is memorable by definition. It is possible then to create scenes that have tremendous inherent power and get away with limited control over one’s theme. But the price is that one might well lose the audience’s long-term mindfulness of what they have seen happen. Fraser has commented that “the expendable figures in movies are in a sense almost always ‘natural’ victims, so that the violences are in some way felt to be appropriate.” His observation here feeds into the main theme of his brilliant essay, that “altogether there are extremely few entertainments that are violent in truly shocking ways… One almost never has to avert one’s eyes or make an effort not to lay down the book; rather, one waits with fascination for what is coming next, and one is entertained.”

This is particularly so if the setting is foreign to the audience: “The trouble with second- or third-rate ‘serious’ artists is that they provide enough information to emphasize the differentness of the people or peoples they are talking about or filming (unlike, say, the Sheik or Sarong kind of Hollywood movie in which one is patently never out of Southern California) but not enough to make the breakthrough into real empathy possible.” The effect may be seen in films and fictions set in faraway, Orientalized nations, where we know people do things differently and at times unpleasantly, and it’s quite au courant to show things — a woman being stoned to death, a man being decapitated — that would take the audience a long time to get over if they occurred in Manhattan. This is the ultimate risk incurred by the twenty-first-century writer handling folkloristic themes. The reality of the material, usually on some level a matter of life and death, is easy to gloss over and package for consumption by emphasizing its alienness and the narrative tropes by which outsiders tend to grasp difference. In addition, once a motif has become folkloristic (a judgment usually made by outsiders to a culture), it’s all the easier to ignore the ways in which for insiders it was, and is, serious business.

It is not so different from the way in which Victorian writers wrote about the exploits, misdeeds, and sufferings of Jesuits and other Catholic clergy to a largely hostile Protestant audience. In Search Your Soul, Eustace: A Survey of the Religious Novel in the Victorian Age, Margaret Maison devotes an entire chapter to the stock Victorian figure of the Wicked Jesuit, who often ended by getting killed. Whether wicked or not, the psychology of such true missionaries as Brébeuf represents a challenge to the lay reader in the twenty-first century that is perhaps most easily dealt with by idealization, objectification, exoticism: in short, by Orientalism. The Orientalism in such portraits as Maison gives us is overt and hostile, but it need not be either to avoid a direct engagement with motives that the majority in a culture do not recognize and may find threatening. The question then is whether the culture still has the right to enter into scenes of cruelty involving those who have such motives, and to do so self-reflexively rather than on the sufferer’s terms. And to this taste, Russell fails on the latter score despite her passion for her subject.

Again, Russell tries hard. The costume-drama ferocity of Moore’s Jesuits is absent; her rendering of the Society is not folkloristic in this sense. She loves her characters, even going a little too far in making them appear like the rest of us: the humorous situations in which she involves them tend to be cutesy. But on another level she engages in Orientalism. This is the level on which we are forced to ask how men like the rest of us in many ways find themselves choosing a fate that is not like ours and ends cruelly, here as often in history. To pose that question implicitly without tendering it any recognition is to court Orientalism with a vengeance. Some will want to take issue with this judgment on Russell’s book, and especially with the view that it is in her treatment of cruelty, memorable though it is, that she falls short. After looking obsessively at the institution of celibacy through the eyes of author-surrogate Anne Edwards, who grapples with a brief crush on Sandoz (himself in love with Sofia, a Jewish scientist on his team) before finding her gay male friend in his superior, Russell could be said to make a case for the priesthood with her conclusion: it finds Sandoz beyond consolation by love, earthly or God’s, but bearing witness to some indestructible purpose as a survivor and as priest, much as Solzhenitsyn’s characters do to the meaning of their narratives (I think especially of Kostoglotov at the end of Cancer Ward). She replaces the black-robed silhouette of the Jesuit martyr with a man who struggles daily with physical and psychological trauma, described with punishing conviction.

Thus it is especially troubling that the element of Orientalism persists. Part of it may be the lapses in her treatment of celibacy (which was nonetheless praised in one Jesuit periodical), or, seen differently, the adolescent treatment of sex versus the seriousness of Sandoz’s attachment to Sofia; in giving us Sandoz finally as a man for whom it’s become irrelevant, Russell could be said to have her cake and eat it too, and thus to make the cruelty just a little too convenient in terms of her personal grapple with St. Ignatius. But ultimately the reasons for her feint matter less than the consequences, which are to some degree artistic but far more significantly moral. There are two levels to the Orientalizing effect as it pertains to cruelty. Since the audience can be presumed not to have seen (or expected to see) an exotic atrocity happen, they can also be presumed to react as if they were seeing it for the first time, often spelling a stronger emotional reaction than would occur toward mayhem described with equivalent skill in a more familiar setting. But the distance can have a trivializing effect, as Fraser notes: “For all their violences, violent entertainments normally involve a blanking out of the really unpleasant, and tend to promote a sense of security and invulnerability in the reader or viewer. I wish to suggest that a very important way in which certain violences shock us — and shock salutarily — is that they undermine the yearning for invulnerability that violent entertainments cater to.” Fraser contrasts such “catering” treatments of cruelty and especially of cruelty suffered for political reasons — naturally, including religion — with those in which “what is under attack [has been] grasped as firmly or solidly as possible, which in turn means that it must have been observed precisely and in some real measure understood from the inside.”

Quite simply, this is what may be missing in The Sparrow: at once, the sense that the novel really grasps its material as opposed to floating on its inherent drama, and yet that it takes the same material altogether seriously. The fact that most of the characters are Jesuits finally tends to insulate the reader rather than the reverse, and that’s wrong. One does not have to be religious to miss some seriousness of intent on the part of the novel’s characters, as grasped from within; one merely needs to want the story Russell has told to matter, and to hurt, on this level as well as on all the others. The reason is that if it does not, we do not know why Sandoz and the rest have done what they have done and why they end up paying the ultimate price; we just know they are odd, funny, and seem intent on getting themselves in trouble. Our sympathy for them is without cost, since there is no need to consider whether we would ever do the same. Nor do the answers to their motives necessarily need to involve religion, since not everyone called to the priesthood has obvious religious motives. But if such an answer is absent, we need to know; the predictable motive supplied for many, of a flight from sex, is not sufficient to tell us why these men have gone into space. Without such a motive, the tortures become a reason not to reconcile Russell’s sexual preoccupations with the life chosen by the Jesuits, and involve them as Fraser’s “natural victims.”

And if the motive is present, we on the outside need to respect the peculiarly personal quality of the extreme as experienced from this perspective and no other, rather than abstracting it. The scenes set at the Vatican describe the Jesuit heritage with sober respect, but in this context the figure of Sandoz as burnt-out case doesn’t entirely avoid inspiring pity rather than a sense of his sharing these motives. Pity, as applied to Sandoz, is a form of Orientalizing exoticism, the literary equivalent of the over-Celted bombard. Russell has made Sandoz a strong and believable enough character for this at least to be obvious. (She doesn’t do as well on that score by the other Jesuits, who come across as a crew of naive, goodhearted victims.) The great difficulty is that the ultimate effect of the tragic-Jesuit-mission-as-trope is one of pathos or horror but not one of tragedy, which would require the view from within. Russell, having banked a great deal on the originality of her spacefarers’ identity, is thus forced to rely too much on pathos. This statement should not be misunderstood. Tragedy is abundant in The Sparrow, but for Sandoz and the rest to be tragic, as they are, they need only to be misguided space explorers and not missionaries. Indeed one wonders whether, if they were only misguided space explorers, the plot devices Russell uses to get them from here to there would be quite so farcical in some ways. At this point one may also ask if Russell’s Jesuits were a little less cute, or she had spent less time on a rather flattering autobiographical portrait of herself, one would not find the ensuing Vatican intrigue more serious and more painful to read about, as opposed to the Candide-like farce it suggests.

One might even wonder whether the ethnographic mistakes that spell curtains for Sandoz and the rest might not have been a little less simplistic, and involved a real clash of cultures as opposed to an innocent kludge. The aliens of Rakhat are defined by their biology and thus the structure of their culture is not open to serious questioning by the reader on moral grounds, unacceptable though it is in human terms. The emerging folk narrative of the modern missionary story turns upon the meeting of minds between the missionary and the native. It is usually a tragic meeting; this reflects the tenor of historical precedent, naturally, but also has a narrative function. Tragedy presents the missionary at least as a believable adversary and thus gives the native his or her due. Brian Moore’s Jesuits remain opaque and not especially sympathetic, but there is never any doubt that they are to be taken as seriously as point-of-view characters as they are as adversaries. For a folkloric rendering of authentic belief to work, there must be a seriousness granted to the point of view from belief that overcomes the necessary dramatic stereotyping; and for the native to present his or her perspective intelligently, the missionaries must be equally intelligent. Compared to Moore’s, Russell’s Jesuits are essentially innocent, but rather stupid. The awkwardness in this is that whereas Moore’s negative stereotyping creates a shorthand that points the way beyond Orientalism, Russell’s compassion ends by requiring it.

As indicated, there is no denying the power of The Sparrow once it gets down to business. For many people The Sparrow will be a significant and even wounding read, and very probably none will have known anyone who was buggered by an intelligent flesh-eating kangaroo. If one did, one could presume to wish it hadn’t happened. But as indicated above, in the climate of much of the English-speaking world, a story in which a priest is on the receiving end could easily be told as a bad joke or else as a horror story involving a disposable person, like the red shirts on “Star Trek” or people of color in much of science fiction and fantasy. It is to Russell’s great credit that she does not go this route intentionally. We feel badly for Sandoz, and for the other members of the mission. Indeed, for L. Timmel Duchamp and probably for others the main problem with The Sparrow is that the Jesuits are presented too sympathetically. Sympathy, however, does not always mean discernment, and the limitations of Russell’s discernment may be seen in Sandoz’s fate just as this puts her best qualities on display as well. Sandoz as Jesuit is a little more complex than the average fictional portrayal, certainly more so than the hero in Black Robe; but he is not quite complex enough to avoid being a trope, and the trope an excuse to torture him for the sake of the plot. This effect becomes outstanding when Sandoz is instead a brave human being in a rotten situation and we suffer for him as such. Why, then, do we have such lines as this: “It has become clear to me that there is some private theological aspect to Emilio’s emotional problems. I am, personally, convinced of the sincerity of his spiritual engagement at the beginning of the mission”? Why is it impossible to create a human character who is at once sympathetic and possibly somewhat alien to secular twenty-first century Americans, when the sweetly murderous aliens of Rakhat are deeply realized?

It is difficult to recall the stories of Mount Desert Island, of Brébeuf, even of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, and not want something more and something else. I am reminded of Rachel Manija Brown’s story of protecting her memoir of growing up in India from the hands of the Orientalizers, who inevitably wanted a stereotyped Indian image of elephants and jungle on her cover. The cover she wanted and eventually got, a stark image of a bird’s nest in a tree, does not inevitably suggest India but begins to create a sense of the inner being of someone who lived her formative years there. The Jesuit explorers to whom Russell pays homage (such as Isaac Jogues, who returned to Canada to be killed after his fingers had been cut off with clamshells) may sometimes have been unaware of what awaited them, but one can be sure that often they were, and just a little less naïveté and more discernment on the part of Russell’s characters would have made all the difference. A solid and quite moving thriller then takes on the lineaments of a shattering novel, possibly a great novel, about a man who in a real sense either chose his own end or was left in a place where in order to continue, he would have to reconcile it with a single-mindedness allowing for few moments of self-pity, and ultimately coming to the same thing as a choice. There is just enough evidence at the end of The Sparrow to suggest that Russell had this in mind, were not the temptations of pathos, low comedy, and Catholic folk color too great.

Mary Doria Russell is smart and humane enough at least to allow us to dream about what she could have wrought, if she fails ultimately to take her characters quite as seriously as they deserve. But the failure of real seriousness exists, and as a result the fate she has in store for Sandoz acquires a Technicolor quality that is unfortunate in context of a novel about torture. It is the objectified quality of Russell’s version of alien contact via the Society of Jesus when it comes to the price paid that reduces the latter aspect of her story to a one-liner and the alien contact theme to simplistic horror. Thus for our purposes The Sparrow may be most important as “a good bad book,” one stretched to breaking by a folkloristic rendering of what is reality to some. This is not to overstate the case. In some respects, The Sparrow deserves its success. It is well-written, not slick, and deeply felt. Its characters are at least two-dimensional. It has been assigned in military academies as a text on rape, surely a badge of merit. If it misses what could have been its own truest notes, some will say it makes no difference; but others may want to return to Hopkins’ “Carrion Comfort,” and say it does.