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A Drama of Moral Dilemma
'The Enigma of Father Vera Daniel' Book Review
Our present day appears brimming with political polarization and violent confrontation. The contents of The Enigma of Father Vera Daniel address these issues so relevant to our day and age: issues of labor, of human dignity, of social justice, of blame, of reconciling, and of right and wrong.
Published in 2022 by Ambassador International and penned by Michael Gryboski, an editor and reporter at the Christian Post, The Enigma joins a particular vein of faith-oriented fiction filed alongside Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory (1940) and Shūsaku Endō's Silence (1966). All the novels mentioned above have for their protagonist a Catholic priest who is being hunted by government authorities and cannot always rely on civilian help. The priest characters find themselves in various circumstances in which their lives are at risk. They're always on the run. And inevitably they get caught.
Padre Daniel is a bit different in some ways. For instance, he leads a life of respect and freedom prior to his being hated, ostracized, and eventually hunted. By comparison, the unnamed priest in The Power and the Glory is always on the run during the narrative, and Endō's Sebastian Rodrigues – from the time he steps foot on Japanese soil – must always be on guard for civilians hostile to the Christian faith who might turn him in. Without giving too much away, however, The Enigma could also be said to have a more uplifting climax than those of the two classics.
Father Vera Daniel lives in a fictional post-Enlightenment nation with a French culture and dialect. At this period in history, the kingdom suffers turmoil and loathing between the social classes. Vera always strives toward peace. He is a priest diligent in his duties who cares for those whom he serves. He tries to strike a balance between faith and liturgy, and works of mercy and charity. He is loyal to the Crown, even more loyal to Christ and His Church, and devoted to the poor and underprivileged. He takes charity to heart and believes that the Crown can be a flawed institution, something he alludes to in so many words from the pulpit of his parish. Ultimately, a rebellion of the poor classes does take shape, and it proceeds to strike at anything that serves either Crown or Church. The king, local laws, the demanding God of the Old Covenant: all these are but constructs hindering the people's freedom.
As far as I can tell, the Empire of Syland, Kingdom of Madrea, Republic of Grathannia, and Vera Daniel's native country of Parvion are fictional places. But the tactics of the New Order, or Republic of the Third Estate as they dub themselves, resemble in several ways those of the extremists in the French Revolution (1789-99). In 1793, revolutionaries hailed singer and performer Mademoiselle Maillard as “goddess of reason” at Notre Dame (“Our Lady,” referring to Mary). They turned the Cathedral of Notre Dame into the so-called “Temple of Reason” and held “feasts of reason.” Paris's grand church of Our Lady was turned into a den of thieves and idolaters who cheered for the “goddess of reason.” It was a disturbing reality. One which is clearly echoed in a scene from Gryboski's book. A woman, one of two leaders of the rebellion against the government, begins to publicly denounce the Church and her clergy. She continues:
“Their rule is no longer valid, for the old order and its old ways have passed, and the new bright Religion of Virtue has arisen. Gone is the mythical Old Testament God with his sadistic malice. Now comes the bright and glorious Goddess of Reason, whose liberty you must devote your thoughts to. Comrades, I charge you, bring forth the Goddess of Reason, that she may be adored!”
What follows is a scene reminiscent of the French revolutionaries' “feasts of reason” with shouts of “All hail the Goddess of Reason!” filling the street air. Father Vera watches the sacrilegious scene in obscurity within the amassing crowd. A moment earlier, he had been touched by the words of the rebels, agreeing with the outcry against injustice, optimistic of their vision for a society open to people of any color or religious affiliation. Yet, there sits the goddess of reason enthroned and worshipped. Something cultic is going on here (but not in a good sense), and the vision which these rebels champion is indeed a twisting of religious truth. Reason is enshrined as a deity in and of herself. First, the goddess of reason, then the swift execution of those deemed evil in the eyes of the Rebellion. This, too, smacks of the brutality of the French Revolution.
Over the course of the narrative, the Padre finds himself caught in the crossfire of a fierce struggle, this Parvionese civil war. He sees friends he admires become injured or killed, and he wishes – he tries – to help them resolve the conflict. But the reality is that the unfair compensation for labor perpetuated by the wealthy classes and the torturous interrogations of officials like Monsieur Elie Dominique are immoral. Likewise, the wanton executions and widespread destruction carried out by the Rebellion are gravely wrong. As with real life, these sorts of things hardly produce a pleasant outcome. In the middle of it all, we find Father Vera with a heavy decision to make. He must pick a side. As with Greene's and Endō's protagonists, you want the Padre to do the right thing. Only...what is the right thing?
The Enigma of Father Vera Daniel has its own virtues and dilemmas. Gryboski has done his research like popular authors who have gone before such as G.A. Henty in historical fiction and Michael Crichton in the science fiction thriller. He also displays a habit of describing settings and surroundings (eg: the facade of a building or the dimensions of a room) in great detail – the way Tolkien might describe a forest or landscape. This might be appealing to some readers. But, for this reviewer, like Tolkien's vivid locales with their minutest details, the descriptions of dimensions here sometimes feel unnecessary. They detract from the action scenes.
Above all, The Enigma gets the reader to thinking about what is right and wrong. Which of these things happening in the story upset you? Which would you stop? The fictional protests and the destruction of a statue of a king on horseback call up moments of our recent history in the U.S. I can't help but think of the popular pulling down of statues depicting “canceled” historical persons that surfaced in 2020. And protests are, of course, nothing new. Pick any political angle, and you'll find your ideological peers protesting something or other – peacefully or otherwise.
Fiction mimics reality. As in The Enigma, there are real injustices in this world that need to be addressed: abortion, lack of care for immigrants and refugees, cruel treatment of the incarcerated, unfair wages, and the list goes on. Just like Father Vera, we find ourselves in the midst of the world's problems, and we have a choice to make.