Sunday, October 23, 2011

“The Father’s Tale” is Worth a Listen

Both Ignatius Press and I have bent over backward for Michael O’Brien. Ignatius leveled a small forest to print the new 1,072-page book by its franchise novelist, and I gave a week of free time to read it, despite my annoyance at its length. But there are good reasons why card-carrying super-Catholics like Peter Kreeft and Tom Howard blurbed this leviathan. It’s a whale of a ride, as Ahab might have said.

I have particularly enjoyed two other O’Brien novels, Island of the World and Theophilosthough I did fail to finish the messy, visionary Father Elijah. Being a Catholic reader and writer, I want to follow what O’Brien’s doing. He is the Catholic novelist du jour, since the other O’B (Patrick) sailed west. 

Thumbnail plot: Alexander Graham is a widower with two grown sons. He lives in a small town north of Toronto, running an antiquarian bookshop named Kingfisher, a symbolic bird that O’Brien never tires of linking to just about anything. One of Graham’s two sons, a student at Oxford, disappears. Graham discovers that his son has fallen in with a religious cult. Dad goes in search of son, and like Phileas Fogg, he ends traveling around the world. It takes him way more than 80 days.

Through the first 800 or 900 pages of The Father’s Tale, I could not help thinking of snarky things to write about it. It is too long by half. When, on page 371, Graham can not “dismiss the growing suspicion that he was locked into a Sisyphean ritual that would have him trailing his son all over the world, always a step behind,” the reader may sympathize.

The book begins as a modern retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. (In his travels, Graham happens upon Rembrandt’s work on this theme, at left.) The Father’s Tale turns into a Michelin guidebook for anyone traveling from Helsinki to Moscow, then eastward on the Trans-Siberian Railroad; comes to fancy itself as The Bridges of Irkutsk County (when our hero falls in love by the shores of icy Lake Baikal); and concludes like John Le Carré lite, complete with Soviet and Chinese torture and counter-intelligence. It is almost as if O’Brien’s editor, upon reading the desultory first half of the manuscript, ordered the author to spice it up. Instead of editing what he had written, O’Brien then turned the book into first a romance, then a spy thriller. If it weren’t so damn moving, or erudite, The Father’s Tale might be laughable.

O’Brien, however, is not only an iconographer (useful when he comes to describe sacred art of the Russian Orthodox Church) but also apparently a scholar of Russian literature, history, and culture. Graham’s favorite room in the Kingfisher bookshop houses his collection of Russian lit, and his fluency stands him in very good stead when he meets a prostitute in Moscow, a remarkable pair of monks beside the Little-Little Ob River, and a beautiful widowed doctor and her two sons-in-need-of-a-father deep in Siberia. O’Brien’s comfort among the stuff of Russian language and culture is reminiscent of, if not quite so impressive as, Patrick O’Brian’s knowledge of 19th century naval warfare and European history in the time of the Napoleonic wars. O’Brien with an “e” takes his reader deep inside Russia today—with a book as long as the Russian landmass.

Any book worth its price has to do at least one of three things: entertain, instruct, inspire. The Father’s Tale does all three—although the entertainment, piled mostly into the second half of the book, may seem gratuitous. It is the inspiration for which I will remember this book.

The Father’s Tale inspires me to be a better father, and to think about the very nature of fatherhood. “I gave them so little—so little,” Alex says of his sons to his priest friend Toby, and every father worth his salt can sympathize. Yet Graham shows the depth of his love for his sons—and broadens his personal definition of sons and daughters—by undertaking his mission impossible.

With long sections on modern-day martyrs of Russia and underground Catholics of China, the book inspires me to consider the fate of the Catholic Church worldwide, the possible importance of Russia in the world’s history and its future, and the value of a broken heart.

It inspires me to grow closer to Christ in the Eucharist, in His Church, and in the people and events of my daily life. I have been reading, a bit every day, Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, and there are many passages in O’Brien that seem inspired by this work, which looks for the hand of God in the minutest daily happenings. As Graham tells Toby, “God has his hand on it all.” Or as Father Sergius tells Graham, “The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

At page 1,014 there comes at last what might stand as the moral or buried epigraph for The Father’s Tale. It is a line from scripture in the telling of the battle of David and Goliath. I will leave it to you to read your way to this moral. It is worth working for.

A final note on the prologue: Read once at the beginning of the book, it will take on a whole new level of meaning if read again at the conclusion of the book. This shift in meaning may help the reader measure how far he or she has traveled on this strange journey with Michael O’Brien.


  1. Webster: I just read your first lines to my 17-yr-old:sleeping in to 5:40? "What kind of life is this?" "Very rich," I say. (You will not catch any of us Tanzis getting up at that hour but you might find the reading lights still glowing at 3 am!)
    I was just yesterday trying to force The Master of Hestviken onto a friend who said she wants to read KLD. Somehow MHV is more profound, more...something (I will find out what on your blog when you finish!)

  2. Here is the book trailer for "The Father's Tale"

    Enjoy :)

  3. I really like F Elijah. I wish O'Brien would write a sequel. BTW its not messy, finish it.

  4. I'm in the middle of reading The Father's Tale. Thank you Michael O'Brien for this book. Thank you God for giving this man to us.

    This story is performative. It changes you.

    Some gut reactions thus far.

    -I think this book had to be precisely long enough so you would forget the prologue. When the prologue explained itself I almost got to my knees. Why didn't I?

    -Alexander. Alexander the man who thought his life was over. The man who jumped in a frozen river to save two children only to find out in a few months that his soul was numb. The man who would slowly empty himself pursuing one of his sons. The man who would nearly lose his mind. The man whose skull would be cracked by thieves... exposing to another his guarded brain, the kremlin, and breaking his barrier of resistance and control. Now Alexander--the Western Man--lay and must learn to feel again--to live again, to be warmed by another. He needs a good Samaritan to pick him up and take him in. To be redressed by another in helplessness. (Sin makes us less human; sin makes darkens our minds, weakens our wills, we no longer think at all, taste at all, experience at all). Alexander never could 'experience' his kids. Or his friend Fr. Toby. Or his Italian friend's goodness back in Canada. His skull is finally cracked. The arrow had to come into it. He has to experience the Father's merciful love. To get it through his brain. God's love comes to us through his Son--power from his mystical Body; received in ordinary ways; through simple works of mercy, like feeding another soup, spoon by spoon--Alex has to learn to receive, to taste, God's mercy through another. He has to truly "know" God's mercy, the mercy of the Father, to show it to the world, to his lost son. Mercy--to experience it is God's desire. Russia--the land of "experience and passion" is the instrument that finally cracked this man's skull.

  5. Finished the book. So much could be said.

    There is one word: awe. This book left me in awe--in awe of fatherhood. And without this awe, I see now that fatherhood cannot truly begin.

    Thank you, once again, O'Brien.



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