Thursday, 8 December 2011

Book review - The gates of paradise by George Andrzeyevski

The gates of paradise by George Andrzeyevski

London: Panther Modern Fiction, 1967

I'm not sure how I found out about this book, and I don't know too much about the author, apart from the fact that he's Polish. At 125 paperback pages, it's not a big book, but it's a big read - why? Because there are only two sentences in the book, and the second of the two is "And they marched all night." This structure means that the narrative is relentless, building pressure and tension until that first full stop. In this age of constant movement and noise, it becomes difficult to find enough clear time to do books such as this justice, as they require long periods of un-interrupted time to read in one sitting.

The narrative of this book revolves around four members of the mythical Children's Crusade. This event, which was said to have occurred in the thirteenth century, involved thousands of children heading to Jerusalem to free the Holy City from the infidel Turk. The narrative of The gates of paradise occurs over one afternoon of the crusade, not long after it's beginning, while the children are still in France. The four members of the crusade are, in turn, confessing their sins to a Franciscan Friar who is accompanying the children. We soon learn that the four characters in question are the leader of the crusade, and his closest confidants.

The book is about belief, lies, love and lust. The initial confessor, Maud, soon reveals that she is only on the crusade for love of its leader Jacques. We find from one of the other confessors that it was Maud loudly proclaiming she'd go with Jacques that in fact started the crusade, after he came down from his shepherds hut, proclaiming that "God the Almighty has revealed to me that because of the blindness and cowardice of kings, princes and knights, it is fitting that the children of Christ should go, for the love of God, unto the relief of the city of Jerusalem that is fallen into the hands of the infidel Turk",  as most other people thought him mad. Two other confessors, Alex and Blanche, are revealed as also loving Jacques, but not in the pure way Maud does - in fact their lecherousness puts the lie to the concept of the innocence of the child. The last person to confess is Jacques himself, who is revealed to be perhaps a fool on a fool's errand.

The text itself is complex, with recurring statements and themes - one being the crusade itself, the other violent sexual possession without love. Andrzeyevski uses the book as a comment on man, with passages such as "...perhaps there are no pure desires, the need for violence and cruelty takes possession of man's nature, he flees from it in a trembling and shame-filled solitude, then, drawn back once more into the ravening pack, driven by folly and the furies of physical strength, again he goes murdering and violating right and left until the moment of awakening arrives and then man finds himself once more alone in his solitude but because of the criminal gravity of his folly even more solitary than before and in that absolute solitude, in the prison of his flesh and spirit, he searches desperately and in vain for some way out, but there is no way out, he snatches blindly and vainly at what appear to be promises of salvation, but he can forget himself only in violence...."  or this  " only a great tangled knot of unrealizable desires, it only brings us suffering, and yet the black depths of voluptuous pleasure are fed by contempt and hatred...."

Some people have read this book, given the author's origins, as a comment on the Communist political system. It certainly can be read that way - a misguided but obviously sincere leader, followed by some out of pure but misguided love, and by others for more selfish and nefarious reasons. It could also be just a more general comment on mankind. At the end of the book the monk sees that the whole crusade is folly, and tries to turn the children back. To a chant of O Maria virgo davidica virginum flos vitae spes unica, the children keep marching, trampling the monk into the ground. "And they marched all night."

This unusual and in some ways experimental book is worth a read. Try your local library, or look for a second-hand copy, as it's not currently in print.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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