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Haddon Willmer’s sequel to A Suggestion for Lent

2 April 2014

Good Friday and Easter Morning in R C Hutchinson’s novel, Rising:  a sequel to A suggestion for Lent (Blog 7 March 2014)

Rising (567x600)For 200 pages, Rising is like forty days and nights in the wilderness. The central person is Sabino (199-206), a lonely, hard soldier, never at home with anyone, disappointed with life, and harried in his conscience by Qura Papac, the simple healer and non-combatant he had killed cruelly years ago when he slaughtered men, women and children in the troublesome village of Cubiquite. His life in the desert is interwoven with people around him – the exploited workers in the mines owned by his half-brothers, people who struggle to survive through poverty and hard labour and never get to live their dream of abundant life.  His rich family, satisfied with themselves and proud in status, until some of them are brought to ask whether they have gained the whole world and lost their soul – does life have any meaning.  There is the bishop who began his ministry ‘resolved to kindle afresh in this benighted continent the healing light of Catholic charity’  (300) but ending in fatigue and failure, in the dismal resigned recognition of his own spiritual and practical qualities. And there are good people who are brushed aside, poor Esquibe who loves his family and is killed by Sabino on his wild expedition, ‘as a matter of discipline’ and all along, Sabino’s wife,  son and faithful servants, who are exploited, bullied, frustrated by him.

Does the time in the desert end in hell?  Is there no hope, no redemption?  We are stalked by the insidious powerful suggestion that living, as we do, is not worthwhile.  If we are rich, we can distract ourselves by pride of status and conspicuous consumption, but the desert fast undermines that deceit.

Rising takes us into the desert but does not leave us there. The story is like the road to Calvary, where deep darkness falls. Yet even while the worst happens, searches and overwhelms us, the key is being turned in the suffering, opening the door to life redeemed in penitence and hope.

Something like that appears suddenly in Rising.    It surprises, because it is a strange event, like a miracle, a revelation breaking in from another world.  No one in the story, no reader, expected it to happen.  Indeed, sober intelligence would say it could never happen.

Sabino comes to the little town of La Forteleza ‘to locate the old, insidious enemy who must be hidden behind those walls, to entice or drive him into the open and finally destroy him’. Climbing over the town wall in the dark, he fell, broke his leg, and woke up to find himself in a room where people were saying: It must be him, the one wanted by those who are seeking justice for Papac,  killed many years before.  Soon Papac comes.   He turns out not to be the Qura Papac Sabino killed, but his nephew Atun, who seeks revenge.  He tells Sabino he is going to prepare to kill him with a long cruelty, equivalent to what his harmless healer uncle had suffered.  Then he leaves.

Waiting in the darkness, with the hard soldier’s resignation to reality, in pain and fear, it came to Sabino that his state would be ‘less unbearable if only another human being – even his executioner – were at his side.  And suddenly, against the overwhelming tide of loneliness, he heard himself cry out, ‘For God’s sake, someone come!’

Then out of the darkness, a voice:  ‘You want me?’  That is the beginning of a remarkable conversation.  The man deals with the wounded shoulder and then turns to the leg, which will need to be set.  ‘I’ve useful hands’, says the man, ‘Awkward to look at but they know their job’.   Trespassing, long thin hands so wasted, and yet when they touched his sensitive broken joint, gentle, ‘absorbing in itself some share of the established pain’.

Sabino looks more closely at this strange man, who then says, ‘I wish you’d yield to me.’  ‘You’re being valorous – it isn’t needed.  You’re holding on to the pain instead of leaving it to me.  Let it go – let me have your body, for a while, pain and all.  When it’s mended, I’ll hand it back to you.’

‘What are you going to charge me?’

‘…Listen, please:  I do this sort of thing because it’s what I enjoy – it’s everything life means to me.  And my patients pay me with their affection.’

‘You can’t live on affection.’

‘How do you know? You yourself, perhaps you’ve never had enough of it to live on.’

‘Affection is something I’ve never asked for.  I’m a soldier.’

‘But surely there’s always been affection waiting for you to claim it?’

‘Whose?’

Here the man tells Sabino his simple servant, Ugil, has arrived exhausted, following his master.  Sabeno says he paid him and expected no more than conscientious service.  ‘That was all I ever asked of him.’

‘Never for his affection.’

‘I don’t ask for affection from people who serve me.’

‘No? Not for mine?’

‘I’m afraid I don’t understand you.’

Nor, says the novel, did he want to understand.   But the man goes on pressing Sabino about other relations where he might have shown and received affection and kindness and did not, including Iloa his first woman.

The man said, ‘Her gift for affection was unsurpassed.  That was what you couldn’t accept, something that was lacking in yourself – perhaps the word humilidad will do. You wanted other things – her admiration and obedience, her bodily submission. You never looked for the fondness in her nature – that was something you couldn’t imagine.  Your blindness was a barrier it could never get through.’

Sabino ponders: he sees ‘only his perversity had denied him entrance to a commonwealth of mysterious beauty and delight’.  He says:

‘It’s a pity you weren’t there to advise me at the start of my life.  Instead of now, when there’s not much left of it.’

‘I don’t believe the years will have gone to waste if only you can reach one moment of total understanding.’   The man continues:  ‘My own experience might be of some use if you had any confidence in me.  There are things you and I both understand – pain for instance and loneliness….then we can talk as if we were friends of longstanding…’

The man wants to turn up the lamp so that they can see each other’s faces.  Sabino resists.

‘You still don’t trust me?  …If you’d look at my face –‘

Sabino looks up as far as the man’s lacerated torso and says, ‘I’m sorry – I don’t want to.’

But he asks the man to stay with him.

‘I’ll stay, so long as you do what I tell you – so long as you rest.’

Sabino dozes, dreams, wrestles with his questions.

He wakes and says that if he suffers about eleven hours when he is being killed, that will surely put it right, by balancing precisely  what he did to Papac.

‘That isn’t what he would ask for, the man you speak of.  It’s not the way such debts are cancelled.’

‘Then what am I to do?’

‘Tell me, did you really loathe the man?’

‘But of course…’

‘You loathe him still?’

‘He’s dead, how can I tell?’

The man suggests that with his leg now healed Sabino could escape.  Sabino says he has no wish to be protected, as he means to go through with it.

‘For the sake of the man you killed?’

‘I suppose so…’

‘So you don’t loathe him now…?’

‘I need to put things right.  I want to make a final settlement.’

‘With a dead man? A man who means nothing to you now?’

‘I didn’t say he meant nothing.’

‘You see him just as an injured man demanding retribution?’

Sabino pondering:  ‘No, I don’t remember him as the sort who would make demands.’

‘And yet you want to give him – at enormous cost – something he would never have demanded…?  Suppose he came and asked for your friendship?……. If he came now and begged you to like him, would you stare back at him without the slightest feeling?’

The man continues: ‘…what mattered –to him, I mean – was the loathing.  You say you want “to put things right”.  I don’t see how you can, unless you can turn your feelings inside out – unless you fix your mind so firmly on what you’ve called “a likeable kind of man” that you come to be fond of him.’

Sabino, forlornly, ‘I don’t get fond of people.  I’m what I am.  I can’t change now.’

Yet, for all his resistance, change has been going on in Sabino.  The healing man has been making the difference.  Inwardly, not in conversation with the man, Sabino makes a confession and a plea (226-7).   He is coming to a resolution of the crisis of his being.  ‘It was not enough to revoke the past, to assume a new identity; that specious liberation left him rootless.  Preparing his equipment for the final journey, the journey with no destination, he realized that his single need was for a cherished fellow-traveller; and how should he find him at this late hour, having never learnt the language in which men’s cloistered selves cry out to one another?’

The man encourages him to get off his bed and walk – his leg can bear his weight when he takes the helping hand of the man.

He heard the surgeon’s voice as if it came from a lifelong friend:  ‘My hands are enough for you? You still don’t want to see my face?’

Sabino slowly raised his eyes to see a terrible disfigurement and yet majesty and beauty, ‘a man the fire of whose compassion enveloped and destroyed the last of his resistance.  He tried to speak, but emotion of a sort he had staunched since childhood gushed up to drench his lungs and throat.  Incontinently weeping, he let his head fall on the surgeon’s chest….he could only mumble the words ‘I see. At last, I see.’

He is fetched for his terrible death.  Atun Papac is amazed at his being able to walk. Sobino tells what happened.  You dreamed, says Atun. No, says Sobino: he was a man like you, the man I butchered at Cubiquite. Atun says he had a dream in which Qura Papac came to him and told him he was not to kill Sabino so he is letting him go.   ‘From any living man I would not accept such senseless orders.  But those who invade our dreams know more than we do.’

So Sobino and his servant Ugil are put on horses and told to go.  The story goes on for another 120 pages, as Sobino finds out what is the new life he has to live in a land, family and business now devastated by vengeful marauders.   That might be subject for another blog.  We already have enough to think about in this part of the story.  Here is something like a real conversion.  The surgeon comes and heals the leg.  And more.  He searches Sobino’s being down to the roots, and does not merely expose his failure to himself, but persuades him to move to something different.   One key point was for Sabino to stop wanting to pay for everything, and instead to learn affection.  To stop trying to be self-sufficient and fixed and finished in the shrivelled self.  To get free of the fear of seeing the face of the other and so to live in his gaze and to yield to him.

Qura Papac is a Christ-figure, indirectly and delicately written.  Christ-figures appear in at least two other novels by Hutchinson – most notably in Johanna at Daybreak.   The resonance with Christ in the Gospels is not crudely drawn and the story works well enough for readers who don’t want to let Jesus Christ lurk around the edges of their reading.   But it is there.  The wounded healer.  Dead but not bound by death.  Alive and the source of new life, stangely. The one profoundly sinned against and hurt who comes in love to those who reject and violate him and wins them back asking for affection.   Jesus becomes ‘a cherished fellow-traveller’ even along the darkest path.  This is not easily or cheaply to be believed or discovered.  Sabino is not an unusual person in resisting it.  Like many of us, in varying degrees, he has learned to live without wanting it.  Before it was pressed upon him by the healer, he could not imagine it or want it.  Atun wants to discount it all as a dream.   And we can hide from it by saying it’s just a great novelist’s invention, a mere fiction, not real life.  But some, like Sabino, come to see, ‘at last I see’.  That is how the good news of Jesus Christ, in death and undying life, exists in the world.  A story told without firm anchorage, dismissible as a dream or drunken revelling, as happened on the first Pentecost, foolishness to the Greeks, and yet proving itself the power and wisdom of God in those who yield themselves in trust to the One who comes.

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