January 30th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Dyson report only partial answer to union problems

CANBERRA OBSERVED No urgency but Turnbull will want to make his mark

NATIONAL AFFAIRS SA pays price of solar and wind generation

FRENCH POLITICS AND ISLAM Kepel scathing of French elites, Salafists and far-right Islamophobes

ENVIRONMENT New bushfire tragedies: when will we ever learn?

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Betrayal: Curia no friend to Russian Catholics

HISTORY OF TAIWAN From pivot of Dutch trade to Japanese outpost

LIFE ISSUES Victoria enacts law based on lies told to Parliament

LIFE ISSUES Euthanasia: a false start to end-of-life issues

ETHICS Book traces foundations of true civilisation

RELIGION AND SOCIETY A welcome in truth for the same-sex attracted

CINEMA The beauty beyond fear: The Good Dinosaur

BOOK REVIEW Secularism mars insights

BOOK REVIEW A novel for the remnant


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A novel for the remnant

News Weekly, January 30, 2016



by Michael OBrien

(Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015)
Hardback: 288 pages
ISBN: 9781586179465
Price: AUD$45.95


Reviewed by Peter Kelleher


The prisoner’s paradox is pertinent to the reading of this novel.

On Sunday a prisoner is told he will be executed on one of the following five days but that, when it happens, it will come as a surprise.

The prisoner reasons thus: “If they have not come for me by Thursday evening, I will know that my execution will take place on Friday; but then it will come as no surprise. Therefore, they can’t execute me on Friday.

“Similarly, if they have not come for me by Wednesday evening, I will know that they must come for me on Thursday, as Friday is impossible. But, if I know they will come for me on Thursday, they can’t execute me on Thursday as it would come as no surprise.”

In the same manner the prisoner argues for the remaining three days of the week and believes he is safe from execution as his logic convinces him that, no matter what day they might come, their coming will be no surprise to him.

Imagine his surprise, then, when they came for him on Tuesday morning and hanged him!

Twenty years ago, Canadian artist Michael O’Brien departed from his accustomed métier and published a story, Father Elijah: An Apocalypse.

Since then, he has published several novels, including all those he had already projected in the Children of the Last Days series, of which Father Elijah: An Apocalypse is actually volume two. Now, he closes out the series in an astonishing manner with Elijah in Jerusalem.

By the way, if you have not read Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, do it now. Get hold of a copy, and read it; it won’t take you long. I’ll wait.

Now, obtain and read Sofia House, the opening novel in the series. I’ll be here when you get back.

So, I don’t think I have to say expressly by now that I highly recommend Michael O’Brien’s writing; especially for those who are wondering what a Catholic novel might be like. Suffice it to say that Catholicism suffuses his works, above and below and beyond; and that they are full of everything else and everyone else, too: drama, acute and intimate characterisation, thrilleresque excitement; life, death; salvation, perdition; the good, the bad and the lukewarm; history, art, literature; the best and the worst humanity can offer; and all viewed specifically from the kaleidoscopic perspectives of apocalypse; that is to say, in the light of the multiple points where time meets eternity.

Having vouched for the novel’s catholicity, however, it remains to be said that it may be a novel only for a remnant.

Father Elijah: An Apocalypse and Elijah in Jerusalem invite comparison, not least because the latter is presented as a direct continuation of the former. The question that besets me in this regard is, how much, if any, of the narrative in Jerusalem was already in O’Brien’s mind as he polished Apocalypse. The question is pertinent because, even after two readings, I’m not altogether sure who’s who and what’s what in Jerusalem.

Without giving too much away – for, among other things, the novel is a thriller of the first order – these doubts as to who is who and what is what are core themes of the book. The identities of the central players are, shall we say, “in play” throughout; as is what is to be done, by whom, and to what (or whose) purpose.

But first, enough of the story to set the context for my comments. In Apocalypse, we are introduced to Father Elijah, a Carmelite monk on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. He is called out of his solitary quietude on the request of the Pope, who believes the Last Days are at hand, to confront the “President”, a powerful and charismatic fellow who has taken the political order by storm and looks set to fix everything, and who for that reason is shaping as the Antichrist in the Pope’s mind.

After a series of engaging encounters, Father Elijah manages to infiltrate the President’s mansion on Capri and speaks the words to him that Elijah hopes may turn him from his Satan-inspired path.

Needless to say, the President does not take Elijah’s advice very well; but Elijah gets away and retires to the desert in Transjordan for a time. As Apocalypse ends, Elijah and his companion, a Palestinian monk called Enoch, top a rise to the east of Jerusalem.

“You are the Alpha and Omega,

“the First and the Last,

“the Morning Star shining bright.

“The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’

“Be with us now as we face our foe,

“that we might stand firm,

“and strengthen the things which remain.”

So speaks Enoch, after which the story ends: “Thus did Enoch and Elijah go down into the city, while above them a jet banked and began its descent to the airport by the sea.”

Elijah in Jerusalem takes up the narrative from that very moment atop the hill outside Jerusalem and follows the careers of Father Elijah and Brother “Ass” Enoch as they try to confront the President again.

As to identities. The central character is Father Elijah; who was David Schäfer; and who becomes Davide Pastore; just to give the names of this dynamic character that are given in the book. We are told, more than once, that he has had others and that he has had as many “careers” as he has had names. And Father Elijah has encounters with people who have a series of names and as many “careers” to match.

In Jerusalem, Elijah is directed by an inner voice to an encounter with a man whose identities have been legion, if it might be put thus, and whose several careers reek of the same infernal inspiration.

The nexus between who you are and what you do is emphasised again and again. The question of the identity of Father Elijah is tied up intimately with the task set for him; a task that was set for him first in the opening pages of Apocalypse and the urgency of which grows to a crescendo in the second half of Jerusalem.

First the Pope had sent him on his mission; later, as Elijah reflects on events, it is an “inner voice” that confirms that mission for him.

“As he had often done in recent years, [Elijah] wondered over the identity of the two witnesses [in St John’s Revelation (The Apocalypse)]. … [they] would exercise extraordinary spiritual authority … . They would prophesy against the Antichrist. They would be killed by him and their dead bodies would be left exposed for ‘three and a half days’ in the streets of Jerusalem. …

“Elijah now reflected on his own mission.

“Who am I in your eyes, O Lord? …

“On the mountain the interior voice had said to him:

Little one, my son. Fear nothing. The beast that impersonates a lamb approaches the sanctuary in order to destroy it and to take the throne of Jesus, the true Lamb of God. He will succeed for a time in obscuring the light of heaven in many places.

You are to be a witness for Christ. You are to be a sign. Fear nothing. Speak only what shall be given to you, and it shall be for the salvation of many souls.

The supernatural answer, at least, as to identity is that it resides in mission, vocation, what you do.

To assert that St John’s Revelation is the key to O’Brien’s novel may be akin to suggesting that your own front door might be unlocked by pushing the schematics of an Airbus A380 under the door. Nonetheless the story is steeped in it.

In this regard, it is well to keep in mind O’Brien’s caution in the Introduction to Apocalypse and renewed in Jerusalem to the effect that he in no way pretends to prediction of details but merely to the presentation of apocalypse-type events and how individuals deal with those events. This is as it should be; as only the Father knows the hour.

One thing that may be said with certainty about St John’s Revelation is that narrative time is undercut in such a manner as to render doubtful which events are past, which events are happening now, and which are yet to come. There is no timeline in the Biblical text; everything intersects with eternity and with every other thing; everything happens at once, yet that cannot be; and everything happens again and again with always new persons.

This, for example, I take as an indicator to why many of the events and characters in Apocalypse have parallels in Jerusalem: Anna and the evil Smokrev in the first; and Karin and the unutterably evil Petro in the latter.

Other themes that I don’t have room to investigate here are sin (its effect on the sinner and on the sinned against), suffering (innocent and redemptive) and prayer (Elijah prays constantly). The single remark I will make is that these themes are not merely inserted so that the novel(s) cover all the bases, as it were, but rather it is that each thematic strand in the overall tapestry reverberates with meaning derived precisely from its dynamic relationship with each of the others. What more can I say? “Take and read.”

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
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