Book Review | Canticle By Liz McSkeane
Canticle is one of the first releases from Turas Press, of which the author, Liz McSkeane, is a founder. Turas no doubt hopes to emulate the success of upstart groups like Tramp and Stinging Fly, whose select back catalogue have won awards alongside their larger counterparts. A long-time Dubliner originally from Scotland, McSkeane has published several collections of poetry, but Canticle is her first novel, and clearly a work long in the making. The story follows the fictional Fray (Friar) Martín de Sepúlveda and his investigation of San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), a real 16th century religious figure.
Set in Spain in the early 17th Century, the book contains an almost exclusively ecclesiastical cast of friars, priors, archbishops and nuns. This is a deeply repressed world, where doctrinal difference is deadly serious, and can very easily mean one’s life. It is a time of great upheaval, as the gold-flushed glory of the Spanish Empire gives way to long decline. At one point, a character muses on the way in which the riches taken from the destroyed peoples of the new world have been frittered away by successive monarchs on wars and other luxuries.
The characters are in the aftermath of a time yet more repressive, when the autos-da-fe of the Inquisition burned and inter-organisational wars meant kidnapping, torture and death instead of professional disgrace. They navigate a Spain and a church past the worst excesses of violence and censorship, but not wholly over them.
Structurally, the book is told mainly through a series of interview scenes, as the narrator, Fray Martín, puts together the story of how Fray Juan lived, and more to the point, how he died. The interviews are occasionally friendly, sometimes hostile but all vibrate with a repressed energy.
Anger, mirth and sexual desire lurk behind the strict social control expected of religious men and women. Small gestures of touch have great meaning, and scandal is never far away. As the novel opens, Fray Martín has been stripped of his high standing at the University of Salamanca under the cloud of an alleged homosexual affair with a young nobleman.
This tension between unacceptable erotic love and the acceptable religious kind also forms the underlying heretical question of Fray Juan’s writings, the Dark Night of the Soul and the Canticle of the title.
This structure resembles nothing so much as the process of writing a PhD thesis, complete with painstaking archival work, deadlines, source reports and a couple of progress meetings with Archbishop Crespo, a sort of early-17th century Bishop Brennan, and his slimy lackey Prior Ortiz.
The setting and historical figures are scrupulously researched throughout. It’s no surprise to learn that McSkeane has an academic background in both poetry and Hispanic Studies. Everything from the furniture to the blinding Castilian sunshine to the delicate differences in canonical interpretation have the ring of authenticity. This meticulous simulation occasionally overwhelms the plot and prose, as the action halts to accommodate some of the more obscure points of life in 1616.
As the narrator admits at one point, ‘I cannot resist displaying my knowledge.’ When it works however, it works marvellously, and transports the reader not just into the time and place of early-modern Spain, but into the rhythms of the world, the liturgical hours, the austere and ecstatic life of the monastery. At its best it evokes Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, though it does not attempt to replicate Eco’s intricate, brilliant and frustrating metafictional structure.
The discussion of doctrinal difference, heresy and piety, orders and subterfuge can be confusing, but what comes through are the deeper themes of the secrecy and brutality of the bureaucracies within the Catholic church. The characters act in the looming shadow of terrifying organisational power, and the violence meted out to those who challenge this organisation’s authority. Hearing the names of orders like the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Jesuits, it’s impossible not to think of the regimes they and others like them ran within Ireland in the last 200 years.
The crimes of the Spanish empire described in Canticle are enormous: the genocide and enslavement of entire populations in the new world, the religious persecution carried out by the Spanish Inquisition, and the waves of expulsion and forced conversion of Muslim and Jewish peoples that followed the end of the Reconquista in the late 15th century. And yet the atmosphere of silence, the cover up, the lingering authority have clear parallels with Ireland in the 20th century. The characters know that great crimes have been committed, and their self-flagellation seems at times an attempt to acknowledge these sins. Late in the narrative, Crespo, speaking of the expelled people observes, ‘Some of them will never forgive us. I know I never would.’
If you can get past an occasional excess of enthusiasm for the precise details of poetry and theological conflict, there is a complex and challenging book here that deserves to find an audience.