Monday, November 15, 2010

The Sparrow

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books, 1996
Trade Paperback, 430 pages
ISBN-13: 9780449912553
very highly recommended - reread

It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration.
The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. In New York, diplomats debated long and hard, with many recesses and tablings of the issue, whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to contact the world that would become known as Rakhat when there were so many pressing needs on Earth. In Rome, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.
The Society asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately–a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the furthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.
They meant no harm.

My Thoughts:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is an extraordinary, haunting novel. It is one of my favorite books (along with the sequel, Children of God.) I remember checking it out from the library years ago, reading it, and immediately reading it again. There have only been a handful of books in my life that I immediately HAD to read again. After that I bought my own copy.

Ostensibly a science fiction novel about a Jesuit mission to a new planet and the aftermath, it is also a novel that examines faith and what it means to question one's faith. The narrative switches smoothly between the years 2016 and 2060. In 2016 an extraterrestrial civilization is discovered through their songs heard on radio waves at a listening post. The Jesuits quickly assemble a team to send to the newly discovered planet, Rakhat. In 2060 a group of Jesuits gather to attempt to discover an explanation for the failure of the mission by its sole surviving priest, Emilio Sandoz, who is physically mutilated and emotionally devastated.

While we know the mission failed horribly right from the start, suspense builds as the full extent of what happened and why Sandoz is accused of prostitution and killing a child is not revealed until the very end. The mission initially seems as blessed as the priest's motto, "Deus veult" (translated by them as "God wants it that way") until events render it to a much more ironic meaning. I appreciate the direction she took this first contact story. Like missionaries in the past, they did not mean harm. (I've included some quotes below from the author interview found in my edition of The Sparrow.)

Mary Doria Russell is an excellent writer, both technically and in her story lines. The characters are well developed. The two narratives, while separate until the end, merge into a complete story. I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that The Sparrow is an easy book to read - mentally, it's not - however the ideas presented stay with you long after you have finished the novel.

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best and one I will undoubtedly reread again and again.

"To the best of our knowledge, Father Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat. Once again, we extend our thanks to the U.N., to the Contact Consortium and to the Asteroid Mining Division of Ohbayashi Corporation for making the return of Father Sandoz possible. We have no additional information regarding the fate of the Contact Consortium's crew members; they are in our prayers. Father Sandoz is too ill to question at this time and his recovery is expected to take months. Until then, there can be no further comment on the Jesuit mission or on the Contact Consortium's allegations regarding Father Sandoz's conduct on Rakhat."
This was simply to buy time.
It was true, of course, that Sandoz was ill. The man's whole body was bruised by the blooms of spontaneous hemorrhages where tiny blood vessel walls had breached and spilled their contents under his skin. His gums had stopped bleeding, but it would be a long while before he could eat normally. Eventually, something would have to be done about his hands.
Now, however, the combined effects of scurvy, anemia and exhaustion kept him asleep twenty hours out of the day. When awake, he lay motionless, coiled like a fetus and almost as helpless. pg. 5-6
What was the calculation? Seventeen years out, almost four years on Rakhat, seventeen years back, but then there were the relativity effects of traveling near light speed. Born a year before the Father General, who was in his late seventies, Sandoz was estimated by the physicists to be about forty-five, give or take a little. Hard years, by the look of him, but not very many of them.
The silence went on a long time. Trying not to stare at the man's hands, John debated whether he should just go. pg. 8
Nobody had told him Sandoz was this far gone. pg. 8
To defend yourself, John was going to say, but it seemed mean. "To explain what happened." pg. 9
This wasn't the first time he Jesuits had encountered an alien culture and it wasn't the first mission to come to grief and Sandoz wasn't the first priest to disgrace himself. The whole business was regrettable but not beyond redemption. pg. 11-12
The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time. Like most colossal disasters. pg. 12
John saw then that there was nothing to do except bear witness, and gently drew Ed away. pg. 77
Head against the wooden door, hands gripping the frame, he listened until the weeping was over, and learned the sound of desolation. pg. 171
"You know what's the most terrifying thing about admitting you're in love?" she asked him. "You are just naked. You put yourself in harm's way and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you." pg. 179
"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. pg. 401

Interview: A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell:
It seemed unfair to me for people living at the end of the twentieth century to hold those explorers and missionaries to standards of sophistication and tolerance that we hardly manage even today. I wanted to show how very difficult first contact would be, even with the benefit of hindsight. That's when I decided to write a story that put modern, sophisticated, resourceful, well-educated, and well-meaning people in the same position as those early explorers and missionaries--a position of radical ignorance. pg. 411
When you convert to Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won't rescue you. That was the theology I was dealing with at the time. Writing The Sparrow allowed me to look at the place of religion in the lives of many people and to weigh the risks and the beauties of religious belief from the comfort of my own home. pg. 411-412
Some time ago I realized the books that kept me turning pages were the ones that had two or more story lines. It's a structure I admired as a reader. pg 413


Unknown said...

I have had this on my list for a year and am finally listening to it on audio, which may take me another year... lol

I have heard so many many great things about it. :)

Lori L said...

I can't repeat it enough - The Sparrow is one of my all time favorite books. Trust me, you'll want to read The Children of God right after you finish it.

Audra said...

I loved this book -- read it a long while ago -- but never read the sequel. I should! Maybe I'll do this as a reread for '11...

Lori L said...

You need to read Children of God, Audra, to complete the story.

Lisa said...

This has been on my list for a while, I need to track down a copy soon.

Maybe after we move.

Lori L said...

I'd wait until after your move and you get settled back into a routine too, Lisa. I'd have to say it's not really a light-hearted fun read.