This book is a first, for me. Not the first book by Faber that I’ve read (I’ve discovered him through “The fire gospel”, that I borrowed on a whim, because I liked the title, and have also read “The crimson petal and the white”. Both are sensational, each in their own ways). It’s the first book I’ve read on an ereader, that’s what it is, and I’m mentioning it because it is a serious handicap for a book, given that everybody I was trekking with could here me insulting that device everytime it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do (so, a lot of pestering and yelling in the desert valleys of Zanskar), and just the fact that I didn’t throw the thing in the river is a testimony of how good a writer Michel Faber is.
This is Peter story. Peter is a christian, chosen by a non descript, allusive organisation called USIC to go to planet Oasis, somewhere in the universe, to teach, or preach the bible to its inhabitants, which they know as the book of strange new things. Peter leaves his wife, Bea, on Earth, and the book relates both Peter’s experience directly and through the letters he sends to his wife, and Bea’s life on Earth, through her letters back to him.
This book is many things, but it is perhaps easier to say what it is not. First, and foremost, it’s not a Christian or a preachy book. It’s a book about Christianism, seen through the lens of another species, another life form able to think and believe, and Peter’s struggle and doubts in his missionary work allows a great reflexion on christianism’s anthropocentrism, on the implications of bringing a religion to others.
Secondly, it’s not a typical science-fiction book, there are no intergalactic battles here. Again, it’s really about humans more than it is about weird aliens, but then that can probably be said about every good sci-fi novel.
It’s splendidly written, well constructed, and unlike all the others book I’ve read by Faber, which is something that I admire, the ability to do something entirely different, even if some of the themes (religion, love, women and feminism) are recurring.
It was interesting to read it in a remote place of Zanskar, North India, because of the implications of misionarism and colonialism (this is a post with a record number of words in “ism”, my apologies!), because the landscape here is sometimes so beautifully alien one feels as if having traveled to another planet, but what struck me most was a comment Peter makes, when reading about what goes on on Earth. The avalanche of bad news first depresses him, then he starts feeling as if he can’t relate, and gets angry with wife for bringing all this news. While reading this, I was annoyed with the character, his insensitivity, his lack of compassion. I had always been angry with people who react to the eternal grimness of the news with a “it’s always the same: war, destruction, etc..” because I think there is a sort of moral duty in caring, in thinking of it not only as numbers but as the people these numbers represent, as lives, wnot casualties (very idealistic of me, I’m aware;). But this passage stayed with me and, after almost a month without contact with “the world” (no phones, no internet) I came back to a city to discover bombings in Syria, shootings in the US and in a moment I understood Peter’s reaction a little bit, so flooded by bad news it was hard not to want to forget it all. So it was not only a great book, it was also a personal reminder: you can walk to the end of the world -or, in Peter’s case, another world – but you shouldn’t try to forget it.
Quote: 1st sentence: “I was going to say something, he said”
“Belief was a place that people didn’t leave until they absolutely must.”
“I just wish”, she said, “that this magnificent, stupendous God of yours could give a fuck.”