Monday, 12 May 2014

Two 'novel' takes on suffering

Two books I read recently shared a similar theme and got me thinking about the perennial question often held up against religion - the problem of suffering. How much of it is our fault; how much is undeserved, and is there a God in it all?

It's a theme around which one treads carefully as an ordained Minister. I felt a bit bad recently when a group I belong to was being encouraged to signal commitment by attending all scheduled meetings, and all I kept thinking was - well, we'll try, but what about the sudden death of a loved one, or sudden illness or accident...none of us knows what is around the corner. A bit morbid, I know. That's perhaps what taking a lot of funerals, and frequently working with bewildered and bereaved people, does to you.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a grim reminder of how the innocent suffer in war. More than 11,000 men, women and children were killed during the 44 month long Sarajevo siege, which is the book's subject. It begins with a mortar landing in a bakery queue, killing 22 civilians. A cellist, witnessing this atrocity from the window of his flat, decides to play Albinoni's Adagio every day there for 22 days, to honour the dead. 

Meanwhile the novel explores the everyday life of three disconnected residents of Sarajevo and how they deal with the struggle for existence in a city where even buying bread and fetching water are life threatening activities. Their fears are detailed minutely, but they seem rather under developed as people - the main character is really the city and what it has sadly become.

The philosophical question of the novel centres around a female sniper calling herself Arrow, who is charged with guarding the cellist from a distance, but this means killing in order to prevent him being killed. The morality of killing in war and who is in fact the enemy, is complicated enough for her eventually to abandon her identity as a sniper, which she finally does, by reclaiming her real name in the last sentence of the novel, seconds before the arrival of other killers, sent to kill the one who no longer wants to kill.

There should have been palpable tension but I found the whole thing a bit muted and flat, and I was left feeling underwhelmed by the book as a portrayal of human suffering. There was an overwhelming amount of local place detail and hardly any deeper exploration of relationships. I plodded through, out of a kind of loyalty to those who suffered in the real siege, but sadly I wouldn't say my mind, heart or soul were in any way expanded. 

In contrast, I became instantly hooked on John Green's The Fault in our Stars, unable to put it down until the final gut wrenching page. It made me think afresh about whether it is appropriate to expect meaning to emerge from what seems to be entirely undeserved suffering. 

Because that's what we want, in the end, to make sense of it all.

The subject is children dying of cancer, which sounds so morbid, but the book is clever, profound and funny as well as being immensely sad. It's full of witty one-liners which peel back the mask of all cancer sufferers being saintly and heroic, to reveal otherwise entirely normal people who do not primarily wish to be defined by their illness.

Hazel, a sixteen year with terminal lung cancer, starts attending a Support Group in the local church. It's full of clich├ęs and platitudes ('the Support Group, was, of course, depressing as hell') but there she meets Augustus Waters, amputee and gorgeous seventeen year old, who proceeds to (successfully) persuade her to be his girlfriend.

At first she resits because as he is in remission and she will die one day soon, she wants to spare him any pain; but they fall in love anyway, sharing as they do an acerbic sense of humour and love of reading. In a romantic trip to Amsterdam they track down an author whose own cancer novel Hazel loves, only to discover he is an embittered alcoholic with a penchant for telling hurtful truths. On returning home, Augustus reveals he has has relapsed into final stage cancer: it will now be Hazel who is left to mourn. 

The big questions are all there - mortality being the one which frames all the others, of course. Rumbling away in the philosophical background is how we deny our own mortality, until inevitably faced with it. Hazel observes 'whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact depression is not a side effect of cancer - it's a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.'

Religion is present but shaded: the support group takes place inside an Episcopal church, described by Hazel: 
'We all sat in a circle, right in the middle of the cross, right where the boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been'. 

It's noteworthy that John Green was a hospital Chaplain before becoming a writer, which he refers to at the back of the book: 'I was a terrible chaplain - for one thing I often fainted at the sight of blood. Also I never knew what to say to anyone, or how to comfort them (...) I kept the Book of Common Prayer in one pocket and it was always banging against my knee'. 

I can't help thinking that writing this book was Green trying to come to terms with what he couldn't do as a twenty two year old Chaplain on a children's cancer ward - make sense of the apparent randomness of an illness which can prematurely and cruelly end the life of a young person.

There is no 'problem' of suffering unless we start from the premise that life should be happy, meaningful and whole. If we're all here by chance and heading for oblivion, 'suffering' is just normal existence: 'the fault is in our stars' (a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). But if we're here looking for purpose and some higher good, then we will continue to grapple what CS Lewis called 'the problem of pain' and people will continue to write novels that either dabble in the subject, or plunge in with abandon. 

Green has done the latter, and having laughed and cried my way through it, I do get a sense (admittedly with ministerial antenna out) that at the centre of it all, and at the centre of all Christian explorations of suffering, albeit often hidden from many participants, is the fact of the crucified one. 

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