The Curmudgeon


Friday, March 11, 2005

Punishment and Crime (Kara i Zbrodnia)

by Mariana Duchowna
Translated by Louis Iribarne

(Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1991; London: Andre Deutsch 2002)

Reviewed by Samuel Grimsnipe

Over the years which have elapsed since this book first came out, nearly the whole Roman Catholic church (with one very notable exception) seems to have had something to say about it. Those few making no comment on the novel have bestowed their attention on the novelist, herself but a recent convert to the faith and, perhaps on that account, the victim of much personal criticism on the grounds that it is not the business of refugees to pillory the power that shelters them. But even assuming this rather tenuous argument to be valid, it is still hard for the independent reviewer to be certain that Ms Duchowna has in fact delivered what she is accused of delivering: namely a body-blow to a fundamental tenet of the religion in which she now professes to believe.

Dostoyevsky, guided by the faith's bright light out of the fog of his former radicalism, took care to ensure that all his subsequent writings showed exactly where his sympathies lay; at the end of Crime and Punishment, it is to the Bible that the hero turns in order to understand what he had found incomprehensible, the reasons behind the unbearable stabbings of his own conscience. Divine justice is also the theme of Ms Duchowna's brief novel; but while the Russian author was content to leave the motives of his Deity mysterious, merely pointing to His commandments as the answer to his character's predicament, this Pole is more astringent with her new-found creed, and has placed before her spiritual leaders a puzzle which has occupied them, in ominous silence, until now; and may easily continue to do so for some time to come.

Yes: practically the only Catholics who have failed to opine upon the subject of this book are the very ones who inhabit the earthly epicentre of their church. When the storm blew up, first in Ms Duchowna's (and the Pope's) native country, then across the rest of Europe, those attempting to elicit some reaction from the holy hierarchs were met either with the calm assertion that the whole thing would blow over, or else with an equally calm and smiling plea of that ignorance of worldly matters which becomes a man concerned with higher things. After a respectable interval, when it was evident that the whole thing was far from blowing over, and had become, with the opening of a fierce debate over whether an Italian translation should be permitted, more than ever an issue which urged the intervention of the Vatican authorities, their silence in the face of these questions changed somewhat in tone, becoming less the silence of lofty naivety than that of careful and profound reflection.

The book's title in English is Punishment and Crime, and the relevance of Dostoyevsky extends somewhat further than the prevailing opinion that Ms Duchowna should have treated her theme according to his example. In conversation with his friend Father Jerzy, her protagonist notes the Russian author's intention in writing the story of Raskolnikov: to portray the essential mystery behind the workings of God's justice, the mystery which, according to Christian doctrine, the humanist mistakes for arbitrariness. After all - the humanist asks - why should it be wrong for a gifted but desperately impoverished young man to remove from the world a sickly, grasping and evil-minded old hag in order to put to beneficient work the money she has uselessly hoarded? Thus Raskolnikov, having murdered her on these purely reasonable grounds, is incapable of fathoming the motives underlying his own confession - until, that is, he opens the Bible, where the secret is revealed. The old woman's murder was wrong because all murder is wrong; all murder is wrong because God says so; why God should say so is not for mankind to ask. For the mind of the true believer, that should be enough.

Punishment and Crime is divided into two parts, one for each of the nouns in the title; but in the novel itself, it is the "Crime" section that comes first. It recounts the wanderings, around a large and unfriendly city, of a man who seems to be some kind of eccentric tramp. It is winter; there is dirt in the sky and slush on the ground; the man does not appear to have a home, but spends his nights slumped in various doorways, dreaming obscure memories which are summarised for us in broken phrases interspersed with ownerless names. The daytime he spends hanging about church buildings, loudly declaiming to the congregations as they move in and out of services, and occasionally joining them himself in order to heckle from the rear during the sermon.

In this way he eventually kindles the interest of Father Jerzy, the hard-working and eminently practical young pastor of one church whose steps the tramp has frequently misappropriated for his rhetorical exercises. At first he harangues Father Jerzy as he harangues everyone: stridently, mercilessly and without cease; but after a week or two of plentiful food and proper bedding, he begins to unwind just enough for Father Jerzy to gather the little that the reader has already learned from numerous doorstep dreams. The tramp is a stranger to the city; his past, though unknown in most of its particulars, is extremely tragic; and he is violently anti-religious.

He is particularly obsessed with the concept of justice. In all his numerous monologues, whether dispensed from church steps, from the back pew for a quick getaway, or in the privacy of Father Jerzy's rooms, his goal is always the same: to prove that divine justice is a lie. He cites the usual arguments of the humanist: the rewarding of evil and of sycophancy towards evil; the suffering of men of conscience; the punishment of the meek and the exaltation of the proud; the fact that "he moveth in mysterious ways" can be used with equal plausibility to show the ultimate good intentions of God or the Devil. The human conscience, he argues, surely the divine spark within mankind, does not torment the truly evil, but causes innocents to suffer for imaginary crimes, its insatiable needling often inspiring people, not to ever greater works in the name of their Lord, but towards cynicism, bitterness and ultimate despair.

As might be expected, none of this cuts much ice with the parishioners. Their interest in theology is minimal; much greater is their interest in the banal, bovine, comfortable faith of which the weekly reinforcement is, in their eyes, the main function of those hapless priests from whom the stranger tries to wean them. The only person who really listens to him is Father Jerzy; first with pity, then with interest, and finally with a fascination that turns, in the closing stages, to agony. For he realises that the stranger's aim is not merely to destroy faith, but to invert it; the stranger is not simply an atheist, but an anti-theist, a believer in God who denies, with terrible vehemence, God's benevolence. And his vehemence is such, his instinctive ability to find the site of a private grief, a painful area in which to wedge the blade of his argument, is so unerringly accurate that to his own mounting horror Father Jerzy finds the stranger's negative faith contagious. The first part of the book ends with the observation that "it is said that the greatest crime is to despair of God. In fact there is a crime still greater: knowingly to sow in others the seeds of a similar despair."

The second part, "Punishment", opens during the summer, in a different city; the first few chapters delineate the vigorous but reasonably contented existence led by one Father Krzysztof. Hard-working, eminently practical, and a reader of Dostoyevsky, he is an energetic campaigner for his church, keeping his flock's interest alive with vast quantities of social functions, including a twice-weekly Catholicism-can-be-fun group for the youngsters; in addition to which he runs, with largely nominal assistance from the priests of two neighbouring parishes, the city's only children's hospice. He is happy in his work, and appears quite strong in his faith, defending both, with gusto, against the assaults of his sceptical teenage proteges.

But as summer slides into autumn outside his church walls, so this happy season in Father Krzysztof's life turns into a long and rapidly steepening slope into the cold. Towards the end of July he is informed that the ecclesiastical authorities are planning to divert funds from his hospice in order to build a new church, even though present attendance barely fills the ones already in existence; he spends the best part of the next three months in a long, exhausting and ultimately futile struggle to save the hospice from closure. Trying hard not to become embittered when he realises defeat is inevitable, he does the best he can for his ex-residents, attempting to resettle them in the kind of environment to which his care has accustomed them; most, however, end up under the impersonal, and only intermittently adequate, care of the State.

Father Krzysztof's confusion at the vagaries of the divine plan is not greatly eased by the reports of those few former patients with whom he is able to maintain contact. In at least one case, that of a small girl who had become deeply attached to him, the upheaval results in a definite deterioration. Thus innocents are suffering because God, of those appointed, presumably by Him, as His representatives, wishes a nice new church for which there is little or no human demand. Father Krzysztof's conscience suffers because of what he has been forced to do; his faith also suffers because of the unavoidable necessity of doing it - a necessity apparently sanctioned by the Almighty, since despite the good Father's most valiant efforts to save the hospice, including an appeal for funds to the public at large, everything including the Almighty seems to work against him: the money collected is sequestered by the Bishop to be pumped into the building of the new church. And all this is before the final, terrifying, sequence of events when winter comes in with a snap and strikes closer and closer to home. Disaster follows disaster, leaving the reader in no doubt that there is more than mere chance at work; and so, gradually but inexorably, the identity of Father Jerzy's garrulous madman becomes known to us, as we get to know the people behind the names which he is soon to mumble in his dreams, and as we realise the cruel manner in which these people, one by one, were taken from him.

The second part ends where the first began: with Father Krzysztof, metamorphosed into the nameless, theophobic zealot, boarding the train which will take him off to a new city, one where he has never been before, there to preach against his God, and finally to encounter and corrupt Father Jerzy; to commit, in other words, the crime for which, as the book implies, he has already been punished. He has been disillusioned by misfortune; but the misfortune is itself the retribution for his disillusionment, for his despairing of God, and for his deliberate attempt to pass on his disillusionment to others.

The Vatican's caution in judging this book is well advised. Its eventual verdict will demonstrate, perhaps as nothing else could, Catholicism's choice between the alternatives which must face every faith: between religion as spiritual panacea and religion as harsh truth. This choice is in fact a dilemma, because the first alternative gives the appearance of merely dodging problematic issues, thus damaging the church's standing with its more intelligent members; while the second alternative could rob the church of droves of its most loyal grassroots members, for whom Earth is quite merciless enough without making God that way as well. Perhaps Ms Duchowna, who has raised the matter in such uncompromising fashion, is guilty of sabotage after all.

The problem with this book, then - the issue that has stirred up such controversy and puzzled the Vatican so - is the way in which Ms Duchowna has offered, in a sort of parable, a possible solution to the supposedly eternal problem of evil. This is the question, posed again and again by Father Krzysztof in the first part of the novel, of why a good and merciful God should allow so much suffering to be inflicted on the relatively sinless. Emphasised by the author's placing of crime and punishment in the order the reader would expect, only to make it clear, in the title and at the end, that they happened in a different order, the answer Ms Duchowna postulates lies in the simple fact that God is eternal. Because God is eternal, He must exist equally in what to human perceptions are the separate states of past, present and future; the distinctions between the three states, as they appear to us, are therefore irrelevant to Him; and as a result of this He can, without injustice, punish a human being for a crime which, in human eyes, has yet to be committed.


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