Vatican City: gospel truth?

Vatican City was always going to be a challenge. With an area of 0.2 sq miles and fewer than 900 citizens, it is the world’s smallest independent state. It’s also one of the most unusual – Vatican City nationals are made, not born (hardly surprising, given that the majority of its residents, barring a few Swiss Guards, are Roman Catholic priests) and the state is thought to be the only country in the world where you can take out money from a cash machine by following instructions in Latin.

All this made getting a novel, short story collection or memoir out of the place look doubtful. I was beginning to think I was going to have to resort to a papal bull just for the sake of having something to read.

Then I google-stumbled (gumbled – I think this should be a word) across an intriguing-sounding book called Gone with the Wind in the Vatican or Shroud of Secrecy, as my edition has it. Claiming to be the first treatise of written protest from within the Church since Martin Luther’s theses in 1517, the book is a sort of collective memoir-cum-exposé published by an anonymous group of Vatican prelates, calling themselves the Millenari, in Italy in 1999.

One of the group, Monsignor Luigi Marinelli (whose anagrammatic last name makes you wonder quite how many other people were in the Millenari), has since acknowledged his involvement in the book’s production. He has been investigated by the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s court, which also sought to recall the book from Italy and restrict its publication in translation – a controversial move, given that Italy is a separate sovereign state. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Right from the start (in the subtitle, in fact), the book sets out its mission to tell ‘the story of corruption within the Vatican’ and propose measures to help the secretive and hierarchical institution ‘cleanse what has become a festering wound’. It then proceeds to allege that almost every kind of malpractice and intrigue – blackmail, fraud, sexual favours, masonic links, spying, drug abuse, and even Satanic rituals – is rife among the elite clergy at the top of the Holy See, leaving those who want to advance their careers no option but to play the same game.

Crucially, unlike many works that criticise the Church, the book is written from a standpoint of belief both in Christian theology and in the potential of the institution. In fact, the authors go out of their way to demonstrate their faith, larding the text with quotations from scripture and even likening themselves to biblical prophets. At times, this repeated self-justification takes on a panicky air – although this is perhaps not surprising when you consider the power of the institution they are up against.

The most compelling passages of the book centre on the descriptions of the mechanisms within the ‘dictatorship’ of the Holy See and the way ‘the diplomacy of the Vatican immediately influences any states with which it has diplomatic ties’. At times cynical and sardonic, the narrative voice cites numerous instances of favouritism and petty rivalries advancing the careers of unsuitable (and often unqualified) candidates and blighting the prospects of deserving clergy. Perhaps most chilling of all are the allegations surrounding the way those high up in the hierarchy control and manipulate the Pope for their own ends:

‘To create a power vacuum at the top, they encourage the Pope to immerse himself in apostolic visits. […] Once back in Rome, bewildered and dazed by the rush of the crowd, ears still ringing with delirious hosannas, it is virtually impossible for the Pope to discover the intrigues of the court. […] When the Pope returns, steeped in glory, he is too tired and distracted to notice the insidious conspiracies hidden in the documents he signs. Everyone drafting the documents knows that the aging Pope won’t absorb the notes on the report.’

Perhaps because this is ‘a book of many voices’, the tone of much of the work is inconsistent, veering between the declamatory, the technical and the downright sensational. While some of the instances cited involve names and verifiable information, many of the anecdotes included are anonymous, and written more in the tone of salacious gossip than hard fact, so much so that I found myself wondering whether the writers’ assertions about favouritism said more about their frustrated hopes for their own careers than about the mechanisms themselves. There are also numerous references to miracles and revelations that non-Catholics will find hard to credit.

Nevertheless, as a window into a closed and mysterious world, this is a fascinating book. Accurate or not, it is also clearly a very brave work. No doubt it’s one of the more unusual texts I’ll encounter this year.

Shroud of Secrecy: The story of corruption within the Vatican (Via col vento in Vaticano) by The Millenari, translated from the Italian by Ian Martin (Key Porter Books, 2000)

Equatorial Guinea: public service announcement

We interrupt this blog to bring you a public service announcement: libraries are in trouble and I’m beginning to realise why. In the first five months of A Year of Reading the World, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Many of the second-hand books I’ve ordered for this project have turned out to be copies that have been withdrawn from libraries around the UK. Sometimes that’s because the library itself is closing, but more often than not it’s clear from the smattering of date stamps on the fly-leaf that it’s because these largely excellent translations from remote corners of the globe are rarely borrowed and read.

All the same, nothing could have prepared me for what happened when I opened Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory to find a sticker as blank and pristine as the day the book first appeared on the shelves at Grangetown Library. This novel, written in a small African nation that has yet to build its first bookshop, painstakingly translated by Michael Ugarte because of his admiration for it, and picked out by some unknown visionary person in Cardiff Council Library Service to be made freely available to the people of Wales, had not been borrowed once. [Since publishing this post I have had confirmation from Cardiff Council that they no longer stamp library books, however the pristine condition of the book made it clear that it had been read very little if at all.]

Set during the last year of Spanish rule in Equatorial Guinea, the novel reveals the thoughts of a young African as he traces the story of his attraction to and eventual rejection of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church. Held up as the great white hope of his community and his Spanish missionary mentors alike, the protagonist is forced to confront the damaging influence that colonialism and religion developed in an alien cultural framework have had on him and his nation. This, he discovers, is the only way he can ever hope to find some kind of lasting independence and peace.

Ndongo’s presentation of his hero’s internalisation of the political struggles that grip his country is extraordinary. Raw, vivid and shocking, his frank portrayal of the tortured emotional, sexual and intellectual development of the young man speaks eloquently, particularly when it comes to the self-loathing engendered in him as he tries to espouse the creeds and value systems of his country’s colonial rulers:

‘I identified with the martyrs’ early sufferings, a little like mine but infinitely more sublime, and I so yearned to have their faith, integrity, constancy, because more than anything, I wanted to be like them; yet I couldn’t, I would never be. In the soul of a little black boy like me, an animal in the wild, the vices of my primitive race were locked in, just as Father Amadeo had told me in confession’.

Ndongo further dramatises his hero’s wrestles with ‘the inexorable and inextricable absurdity of successive centuries’ in his use of language. The narrative roves restlessly back and forth between the first and second person reflecting the protagonist’s fractured sense of self, while the commencement of the book at ‘Chapter Zero’, in which he announces his intention to give up training for the priesthood, underlines the process of psychological unmaking and remaking he must go through simply to emerge as ‘a man among others’. Similarly, the way correspondence and speech are woven into the prose without the usual markers and separations emphasises the extent to which the protagonist internalises the expectations of those around him. By the end, I was left in no doubt that this was one of the most linguistically subtle, inventive and complex books I’ve read so far this year.

But back to that blank sticker. Fear not: this is not a lecture about using your local library. For one thing, I’m hardly in a position to talk – I haven’t taken a book out in more than two years. On an idealistic level, I believe that books should be available to everybody in libraries whether we take them out or not.

Sadly, though, we live in an era of cuts and quotas, where books that don’t get borrowed enough get banished and where libraries that don’t get used enough are closed. It’s the age-old law of supply and demand and it’s hard to argue against when you’ve got cancer care units in need of funds and schools teaching pupils in Portakabins.

I’m not sure what we do about it. Still, I can’t help being saddened at the thought of all these great books that have travelled through so many hands and minds to get to us sitting pristine and untouched in public buildings up and down the land. And I can’t help worrying that that bold person in the Cardiff Council Library Service will go for something a little closer to home when it’s time to choose the next round of titles. Or, worse, that he or she will decide not to bother getting more books at all.

Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo, translated from the Spanish by Michael Ugarte (Swan Isle Press, 2007)