A Catholic Fantasy
Publication Date: 2008
Binding: Quality Softcover
Size: 7.5 x4.5in
Content suitability (Age): 16-up
Two themes dominate this narrative. The enigma of nudity, illustrated in the title – the first recorded question is history – and a mandate to return the gifts of the Magi to Eden.
Guy Gerard, an Australian student seconded to a Portuguese university, agrees to model for a photographer with whom he shares a cabin non a ship-board film set. The photography, though often nude, is innocent enough, but when the photographer wants to exhibit it in an International exhibition Guy questions its morality.
His fellow student confides that he has a mission to reclaim the casket containing the Gifts of the Magi. Persuaded of the truth of this confidence by Ichiro’s unique and ethereal qualities, and mystical experiences of his own, Guy’s frustration mounts because although the deadline approaches, no clue is forthcoming as to the whereabouts of the ancient casket.
Ichiro, however, shows no impatience. “Providence will ring it to light without human planning. Several people will have a part in locating it,” he explains, “but their involvement will be unknown to themselves or to each other.”
The workings of Providence furnish a riveting climax which resolves both Guy’s dilemma and the quest for the Magi’s gift.
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This book was so exciting, to write but I guess it is naive to expect it to automatically be exciting to read. Anyway, the sales were minimal and friends I sent copies to were strangely silent. One of the few who did comment said that while she found it engrossing, she was a mildly shocked because it didn’t seem to come from the same hand that wrote so inspiringly (her words) on the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima and the lives of saintly souls. I guess she expected a homily. But, as I see it, fiction should adapt itself to the general reader. A church is the place for a pulpit but it is an anomaly in the bar or at the beach or where friends meet. The preacher doesn’t compromise his faith changing his tone to suit the surroundings.
Naked has its flaws – the main one being that it was published too hastily. The characters weren’t given time to mature. I was trying to knit so many activities, adventure, religion, history over various time spans and locales. Mostly the protagonists are filming on a ship in the Mediterranean but there are diversions to the burial place of Alaric the Goth and the Garden of Eden. The background subjects were original sin and nudity and why we wear clothes. The title is apt there, and the source of the quote impeccable. The inference that Adam and Eve bore children before the Fall, children who didn’t incur the curse of Original Sin, hasn’t been broached before, as far as I know. When Ichiro is sent into this world to retrieve the sacred objects he is no longer clothed in light as is natural to the peoples of Paradise, but must wear garments which, gentle and forbearing though he is, he finds a burden.
The main character, Guy, was naked for all the photographic session which I realize was a mistake even though the photographer’s intent was artistic, not salacious. I could go on and on with Naked’’s shortcomings but for all its faults I’m not ashamed of it. I’d love it to be a masterpiece, but it is not. I still reckon, though, that it provides a more satisfying read than a large percentage of perfectly-moulded creative-class offerings that publishers’ blurbs drag out all their coloured pencils to acclaim. Most that I plough through are so utterly soulless that readers must sometimes feel urged to throw away the book and keep the dust jacket.
Some pictures from my clipboard while writing Who Told You You Were Naked?
The famous Horace Bristol, at the time a Navy photographer, was in Rabaul Bay, Papua New Guinea, when he took this iconic picture. It is said that the gunner had stripped off to rescue a wounded man floundering in the bay and afterwards was more interested in escaping Japanese fire than dressing. This doesn’t ring true - no one strips fully to dive for a rescue, and anyway the subject doesn’t appear wet. It was more likely to be airmen larking, but whatever the genesis of the shot, the superb unself- consciousness of the fellow, the picture’s refusal to fit any category save its own, was exactly what Amerigo, my fictional actor/photographer was trying to capture with his obsessive photography of Guy. The contrast of physical beauty with the spiritual which is shining in the faces of the equally unself-conscious Coptic monks is what I was trying to communicate. If I failed, and I did, it is because, although all human beings have an intimation of the polarity of these aesthetics, even a Michelangelo fails ultimately. Perhaps Gerard Manley Hopkins has the wisest approach in To What Serves Mortal Beauty:
,,,how meet beauty? Merely meet it; own
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, God’s better beauty, grace.
This detail from the Austrian painter is one of my favourite Adam and Eve depictions. Like Bristol’s Gunner, Adam, seated among the animals and with his crossed feet, expresses man unpretentiously relaxed – though Eve looks a little preoccupied; an understandable reflex under the circumstances.
There is an ethereal quality to the mosaic above the main entrance to the Fatima Basilica that a photograph does not capture. The church is called the Basilica of the Most Holy Rosary and this work depicts the fifth glorious mystery, the Crowning of Our Lady in Heaven. It was made in Rome in the 1930s and blessed before being sent to Fatima to grace the new church by Cardinal Pacelli, who was to become Pope Pius XII.
For a while I had these pictures pinned, along with many others, to my peg-board as visual aids while I was writing about Guy and Amerigo. What amused me was the reaction of visitors. The assumption always seemed to be that the Bristol and the Wenzel were erotic exhibits. “Don’t ever go to the Vatican,” I’d think when distaste or suspicion was expressed, “or the shock might be too much because the Wenzel happens to be an exhibit in the Vatican museum. Indeed, 1831 Gregory XVI purchased twenty Wenzel paintings to furnish the Consistory room in the Papal State Apartment.
My mental model for the novel’s ship (the Rwanda,) was the old BI school ship Uganda which I sailed a couple of trips on when she was a troop ship. Here she is flying her paying off pennant after the Falkland War in the early 1980s.
The burial of Alaric the Goth in the bed of the Busento River.
According to legend, Alaric was buried under the riverbed of the Busento. The stream was temporarily turned aside from its course while the grave was dug wherein the Gothic chief and some of his most precious spoils were interred. When the work was finished, the river was turned back into its usual channel and the captives by whose hands the labor had been accomplished were put to death that none might learn their secret. -Wikipedia.
Olga Nebraska told Hettie about the broadcast at lunch and during the transit Hettie watched a later edition of the news in the A-deck lounge. She appeared to be the only person there and was arranging her crochet work and rejoicing in the solitude when she saw Alaric standing at the long window which gave onto the starboard deck.
“So they finally got round to digging a ditch here,” the Visigoth king said. “Even before my time they were talking about it. Caesar was keen. Nero had slaves in with shovels, but nothing came of it. The problem, I understand, was what to do with the rubble they removed.”
“Did you see my two on the telly just now?” Hettie asked, almost sadly.
Alaric grunted. Domestic contretemps did not engage him.
“They were so happy as children. What went wrong, I wonder?”
“Had a few rascally ones myself. If you’ve given them a sound moral base they come back to it in the end. Nowhere else to go” Alaric mused a while. “I’ve been nosing around these past days. It’s intriguing, the new attitudes, new inventions of each generation. Wave after wave crashing on the shores of the centuries. Seen objectively, though, the only changes that last are a few externals.
“Indoor plumbing was a bright idea. Wish we’d had it. Then again we were pretty nomadic so I suppose... Firearms changed the face of conflict. Initiative in aggression is no longer the preserve of privilege. Now any fool can be a bully. These firearms are more efficient, of course; they’ve speeded up warfare and homicide, but they’ve taken the fun out of the kill. Taming lightning, and setting it to work, was innovative. Unnecessary, but innovative. Put paid to the donkey though. That was a loss.”
“What about books and things, printing? They came after you, I daresay.”
“Disastrous! Led to education. Education spawns ignorance and fosters ingratitude. Do you know what I most detest, though? Of course you don’t, so I’ll tell you. It’s your cavalier treatment of the history of everything, the importance you mete out to the inconsequential. You venerate the commonplace until it becomes the yardstick. Great civilizations had come and gone in America yet you say that Columbus discovered the place, as if all those civilizations were no more than colonies of cockroaches because they were not seen through your eyes.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hettie absently. “I wasn’t thinking...”
“You call us Goths barbarians – and the Huns, and the Vandals – for no reason except that we weren’t Romans. If you only knew the contempt we had for the Romans. It wasn’t jealousy, it was contempt for their ignorance and arrogance. The names of Alexander and Julius Caesar are all that most people know of conquerors of nations back then. I was greater than both those chaps, and a sight less pushy, too, but not many have heard of me. Everyone knows of their deaths. I wasn’t much older than Alexander when I died and was more mourned than Caesar...Did I tell you about my death and burial?”
“Not in detail, as I recall...”
“It was a richer drama than most – our dear Saviour’s excepted, of course – but even where it is remembered the sensational is trumpeted at the expense of fact. Something to do with augmenting the tourist trade, I understand.”
“I’ve been in Calabria for the past days. I’m big news up there; legends, monuments, a manufactured mystique about a spot where I’m supposed to be buried. It’s true that I did leave my army and their families to winter there and went south with a few hundred picked men. We took ships for Africa. I figured that if I could control the grain supply I could control Roma. Not that controlling Roma was as important as doing something about Honorius, the muttonhead adolescent who was controlling us. You would have done the same, wouldn’t you?”
“I daresay,” said Hettie.
The big man with hair like an eagle’s nest and bizarre apparel stood framed by the long window, while the sheer rock face of the Corinth Canal, like the surface of a dead moon, provided a moving backdrop.
Alaric said that it was the third time he’d taken Roma but that the emperor, Honorius, was too dumb to see the obvious. He’d instructed his army to leave most things intact – goods, buildings, women, (“begging your modesty’s pardon”) but during this sacking, to press the point, he took all the civic treasures, church stuff mostly, 40 donkey loads. He wasn’t stealing, he insisted, they were right of conquest, and he was keeping them in custody until such time as Rome found a worthy ruler.
He left these spoils in the north but took the gifts the Magi brought to the Infant Christ, Christ’s seamless robe, and what he referred to as a few trinkets, to serve as barter in Africa. The granaries could be taken without battle, he had heard; judicious dispatch of a general or two, but no full scale conflict. If his legions were needed they were ready in Calabria.
Alaric, with a few hundred men boarded ships but weren’t out three days when they were blown off course by a storm that lasted a week. No sooner had they found their legs after that ordeal when, with Etna spitting out fire to larboard, pirates bore down on them. Their ships managed to make the Italian mainland. At the time there wasn’t so much as a mud hut to welcome them though, as Alaric who had clearly been revisiting the site noted, there was a town there now called Bova Marina.
They beached in darkness and, together with the booty and what animals and provisions we hadn’t jettisoned during the storm, marched inland. The pirates followed.
The Goths were outnumbered and made for the mountains. Alaric’s strategy was to elude them until they abandoned the chase.
They travelled along a river valley which led them into high terrain. The area was uninhabited but game was plentiful – bear, deer and mountain goat. The Goths ate well that first evening and left skins to dry in the morrow’s sun, to mislead the pirates, while they took tributary valleys.
“During the storm Alaric had developed a fever. From the outset he had to be carried. On the second night – it was the Paschal Vigil – they camped beneath a wall of sheer rock. The river they were following didn’t fall over the sixty-foot precipice but apparently coursed within the mountain to emerge from a mouth at the foot of the cliff .
A body of pirates had caught their scent and followed them up the tributary but Alaric’s men ambushed them. They caught all two hundred, bound them together and left them on a ledge along the water level.
Alaric knew he was dying that night. He was rebellious at first. He wasn’t much older than Alexander had been at the time of his death and could understand that great leader’s frustration at scaling a mountain of conquests only to die on the peak. However, after being anointed by the priests, he perceived that heaven wasn’t taking away anything that didn’t belong to it. Anyway the fever was slowly killing his capacity for fear and anger; it was, perhaps, easier to die.
From the tent where they had laid him he could see the torrent pouring from the mouth in the cliff and the pirates, with raw flax binding their wrists, and woven hemp linking them neck to neck.
Scouts reconnoitring the upper reaches for a suitable site to entomb their king found that the river wasn’t an underground stream as they had supposed, but that its bed had collapsed into a cave some hundred or so yards back from the cliff. It fell to course an ‘L’ shape through the cave, and emerged through its mouth to continue on past where they were camped.
The cave itself, they reasoned, would make a perfect mausoleum and provide its own security.
They saw how they could damn the river before it entered the cave. The terrain there meant that the diverted water could be channelled to fall directly over the cliff and, in doing so, hide the mouth of the cave. Presumably that was its original course, millennia before. The upper access to the caves, where the river-bed had collapsed, was long and narrow and could be sealed off with trunks and boulders. The ledge at the water level would have to be lengthened, hacked by hand from the rock to give access to the cave mouth before the torrent isolated it. The work wasn’t complicated. All that was needed was manpower. Heaven be thanked for pirates!
Alaric died shortly after midnight on the Pascal Sunday, the year of Our Lord 410.
His men entombed him in the cave which had so recently been the channel for a turbulent river, along with the Gifts of the Magi, the Seamless Garment, and some of the heavier ‘trinkets’.
One or two of the commanders were for halting the work and burning the body as was the custom but Athaulf, Alaric’s successor, insisted they follow his master’s last instructions. Apart from anything else the smoke from a funeral pyre would advertise their whereabouts, so energies were not wasted in dispute.
When all was completed, and Athaulf had dispatched the pirates to eternity, they crossed the mountains and made their way down to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Then they took the coast road north to the main body of the army. They put word about that Alaric had died up there and that it was the Buzentos river that was diverted to allow him to be buried beneath its bed. “That was not so, of course,” the King of All concluded, “but both the truth and the dissemination are more dramatic than anything the myth makers of Alexander or Attila or, later, Genghis’ could concoct.”
“There, there!” Hettie understood how hurtful unacknowledged effort could be. Then she asked, as circumspectly as she could, if he or anybody came back often from the other side. Alaric said never. Had he spoken to anybody besides her. Again the answer was negative. “Who arranges such things?” asked Hettie, but Alaric was no longer standing by the window and only the bald rock of the canal wall continued to slide past.
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