Books: Perky pilgrim's progress

Will Theo's trip across the world's beliefs equal Sophie's success? Not if he merely skates over the surface of religion, argues Karen Armstrong
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The Independent Culture
Theo's Odyssey

by Catherine Clement

Flamingo, pounds 9.99, 576pp

IN THEO'S Odyssey, Catherine Clement attempts to do for spirituality what Sophie's World did for philosophy. Theo is a teenager whose liberal Parisian parents have shielded him from religion; he has little knowledge of the life of faith. When he falls prey to a mysterious virus, Theo's Aunt Martha takes him on a trip around the world to learn about the different religions and, perhaps, find a cure.

Theo attends a Zen tea ceremony in Japan, an animal sacrifice in Africa, a synagogue service in Prague, and watches the Whirling Dervishes perform their stately meditative dance in Turkey. He has lessons in breathing from a yogi in India, falls into a trance during a Sufi healing rite in Egypt, finds a cure in Tibet, and is reunited with his girlfriend and parents in Delphi. Throughout, Theo and his aunt argue, and Theo voices the questions of secularists confronted with some of the more bizarre rituals and beliefs of religion.

Theo seems to have arrived at an appreciation of the need for spirituality and, at the conclusion, has developed a positive vision of the essential unity of the various traditions. It is not easy to see how he has achieved this, however, since he seems constantly to defend himself from any real exposure to the sacred with a barrage of jaunty, cerebral reflections. It is also hard to understand why Aunt Martha insisted on this spiritual journey, since she seems to have an entrenched antipathy towards religion (except for Buddhism, which has dispensed with God).

One of the difficulties is that information about religion does not really explain its appeal. Spirituality is a slow, silent and disciplined appropriation of a tradition which gradually transforms the seeker's inner being, in rather the same inexplicable way as we are affected by an aesthetic cultivation of great painting or music. A chatty account of the abstruse debates about the divinity of Christ, for example, does not convey the moral, mystical and imaginative reasons for the adoption of this difficult doctrine: a stumbling attempt to express the universal conviction that the sacred is inseparable from humanity.

Clement does provide a useful introduction to some aspects of religious history, and does engage, through Theo, with fundamental spiritual concepts. But this is a gradual process, far removed from Theo's helter-skelter trip and the spectacular rituals of faith. There is no appreciation of the steady dedication to religious law as a way of bringing the divine into mundane existence.

Indeed, the novel is reminiscent of Sophie's Choice in that, like Clement, Jostein Gaarder also confines himself to the intrinsic to the detriment of the inner resonance of ideas. In Gaarder's novels, too, the sprightly demeanour of his characters keeps them at arm's length. Despite their frequent tears and noisy emotional outbursts, we never really get close to Theo and Martha either. An exploration of the boy's interior life, as he finds healing, could have demonstrated the way in which these strange doctrines impact upon the deeper reaches of the psyche.

Clement remains determinedly on the surface. While she is careful to correct misapprehensions, some of her information is not wholly accurate. There are significant mistakes in the account of the history of Jerusalem, for example, and misplaced emphases in the stories of Judaism and Christianity. Much is made of the intolerance of monotheistic faith, but not enough of its commitment to compassion and justice.

Nevertheless, will perform a valuable service if it introduces its readers to the essential harmony and deep similarity of the world's faiths. At a time of heightened religious militancy, it is important that people learn to take others' faith seriously, and that secularists, like Theo, begin to realise that religion may be more congenial and less alien than they imagine.