BOOK REVIEW / The missionary's position: 'Strange Gods' - John Cornwell: Simon & Schuster, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
NICHOLAS MULLEN, the protagonist in Strange Gods, is a tired Jesuit priest in his late forties, dull, nave, manipulative and given to bouts of manic depression. Although unhappy with his emotional, sexual and spiritual lot, he lacks the courage and imagination to do anything about it. Driven more by fear and desperation than by faith or vision, he deserts his pregnant mistress in favour of a dangerous, morally reprehensible mission to an obscure part of Latin America. There, under the religious tyranny of the certifiable mission leader, Father O'Rourke, he proves himself an even greater coward.

Mullen's loathesomeness is a testimony to Cornwell's cunning, unfussy characterisation, yet the author's ambivalent relationship with him leaves you wondering how to take him. Strange Gods is interesting and well written, but while the publishers would have us believe it is 'a gripping metaphysical thriller', it seems more of a men-in- the-jungle action sequence with a theological crisis at its centre. You read it avidly not because you are metaphysically thrilled, but because you keep hoping that Nicholas will eventually make a grown-up decision all by himself, instead of being a cut-out model of a sexually tortured Catholic.

The juxtaposition of one man's internal doubts and external certainties with the missionary discussion is interesting, if not entirely original, but Cornwell seems unable to decide which is the more important and this gives the narrative a curious see-saw feel. Certainly Nicholas's memories of incest, rape by proxy and schoolboy Catholicism constitute a problem, but they do not a spiritual crisis make; at least, not compared with the violence going on inside and outside the Jesuitical hut, which mirrors much of the same going on all over the world.

The more terrifying elements of the mission are muted by Nicholas's prompt absorption back into priestly routines in Britain when it is over; yet his passions remain stifled by weakness, and the only truths he can face are those glimpsed in memories and feverish dreams. In this case, personal enlightenment brings about resignation instead of emotional progress, and cowardice makes way not for courage but for greater guilts. This is indeed a bleak and minimalist view of man's capacity for growth: honest, perhaps, but a very gloomy read.