Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review - A Canticle For Leibowitz

     I cannot believe I never heard of this book before a couple of days ago. It is brilliant. I don't even understand the criticism that the part in the middle Fiat Lux is plodding.
    The book is divided into three sections, Fiat Homo (Let there be man), Fiat Lux (Let there be light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let your will be done).
     Fiat Homo is about a small monastery in a desert dedicated to a holy man, amusingly the Jewish Isaac Leibowitz, who had been an engineer at Los Alamos and who had attempted to save as much of science and books as he could before he was murdered by mob bent on ridding the world of the people who made the nuclear war possible. Indeed, a backlash against any scholar ensues and anyone who is literate is killed. The story begins with Brother Francis who is making his lonely vigil in the desert, fasting and meditating for the forty days of Lent, 600 years after the war. A pilgrim appears who, as time passes, becomes more apparently Isaac Leibowitz himself, raised up from the dead by God and doomed to wander the earth until the return of the Messiah. He remains near the shrine that honors his memorabilia (or relics) and occasionally interacts with the inhabitants of the monastery who maintain the shrine. The shrine was erected where he had been burned alive.
     Due to the intercession of the soon to be sainted Leibowitz, Brother Francis finds his vocation but also discovers a fallout shelter that proves the existence of Leibowitz and contains more of his writings as well as the remains of his wife. The process of canonization takes years and when it is completed Francis is sent alone to New Rome as his reward for creating a beautiful illuminated parchment as well as having been the witness to the saint's miracles. On his way to Rome, he is accosted by thieves who steal his parchment and on his way home, he is accosted by cannibals who steal his life. What remains of him is buried by the saint.
     Fiat Lux takes place 600 years after the canonization of Leibowitz. The world is experiencing an industrial revolution of sorts or renaissance. Humans have progressed to the point where technology is possible and the 'memorabilia' that the monastery has guarded and reproduced is now desired by the secularists who would built a new empire and, being illiterate and untutored, cannot benefit from the examples of the past. Leibowitz makes an appearance as an old hermit Benjamin. A mysterious one eyed Poet lives at the monastery. His name is unknown, he is a wanderer and non religious. Interestingly he considers his eye to be his conscience and claims it helps him to 'see' things that are hidden. These are attributes of Odin and one has to wonder if Miller intended him to be the god. If Leibowitz can wander the earth for 1800 years, why not Odin too? The Poet can see that the visiting scholar, who is a scion of the ruling dynasty of Texarkana, and the officers that accompany him are a danger to the monastery and its mission and leaves to avoid sharing the fate of the Brothers.  The fate of the monastery is not openly stated however, the Poet sees warriors in pursuit of refugees which includes three clergymen. The leader who wants to unite the continent under his own rule, pens a letter to Rome that is not dissimilar to one Henry VIII penned when he broke away from the Church over its' refusal to grant him a divorce. The dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of their treasures followed. At first not wanting to be involved but merely observe, the Poet assaults their leader who is hacking at a defenseless woman with a blunt sword. He is shot and dies contemplating the cavalry officer to whom he delivered last rites and a blow.
     Fiat Voluntas Tua takes place 600 years after the death of the Poet. The passage of time has made him a holy man like Francis and his bawdy poems are included in the sacred writings preserved at the monastery which still maintains its mission after 1800 years but the world is threatened by nuclear war once again. The Church has made provision for the continuation of faith by building a rocket and manning it with a priest, several brothers of the Order of St. Leibowitz, some bishops to consecrate new priest and some women and children. The one priest who will minister during the trip was chosen from the monastery, Brother Joshua. Joshua is one of the earthly names of the Son, an Anglicization of Jesus. Small wonder that Leibowitz, having come to the monastery as the rumblings of catastrophe have reached him, is struck by a rock thrown in the dark by Joshua at what he thinks is something slithering towards him. Leibowitz, having finally met the new Messiah, is inadvertently killed by him. Joshua has no idea what he had done but the author could have chosen many sounds to frighten Joshua and slither would be the sound of the devil. Get thee behind me Satan. Joshua and the chosen survivors leave for Rome and cast off just as the nuclear bombs proceed to extinguish all life on earth. It is left for the abbott to be the witness of the end of days, something that is the duty of all Catholic clergy - to serve as witness for the community and to keep its records.
      Walter M. Miller Jr. chose not to write a postscript to tell how successful the trip to the stars was. It is a bleak and yet humorous look at human history and speculate from the mistakes of the past that the future will include those same mistakes. The main difference will be the scale of those mistakes. One can laugh or cry about it. Miller does both. 

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