Review Mar 23, 2014 by Victoria Ryan
The question proposed by French writer Laurence Crossé in her 1996 book A Corner of the Veil hooked me immediately: “What would happen if God’s existence were absolutely, undeniably proven?” The premise was so compelling that I admit I was well into the book before I fully accepted the script as fiction, having to remind myself that if real proof of God existed I would have heard about it before now. Still, I was happily determined to keep turning the pages to discover the proof Crossé created. I was intrigued by the “ironic, jubilant thriller” the jacket promised and the “hilarious God-novel” described in the Foreword by Jack Miles (author of God: A Biography)—although the juxtaposition ofthriller, God, and hilarious gave me pause. Perhaps something was lost in translation from the French by Linda Asher.
The novel begins with a dilemma for Father Beaulieu, a priest with the Casuists Order in Paris who receives a letter, the eleventh one, from “the lunatic” Father Maulieu. The letter is undeniable “proof of the existence of God”. The proof will answer the hard questions we all ask: “Why does a ten-year old child die of cancer? Why mine? Why me? “ It will show that “the cruelty of the world and the goodness of God aren’t contradictory anymore.” It will not change our “daily schedules, yet nothing will be the same.” Who could stop reading with all that in the balance?
Father Beaulieu understands that revealing the message to the public could be highly problematic. “Everything that today is the motivating force of the advanced liberal societies—the spirit of enterprise, the quest for wealth …the work ethic … all of that will no longer seem important. “ The Church hierarchy worries because “there will be no need for the church if the people no longer have doubts.” Economists ask, “What will become of the sports gods when the spirit of competition disappears… of fashion models… of game show hosts?” The police argue that “the justice system is based on the unstanchable vitality of villainy, of fraud and violence, of contempt for laws.” Readers can’t help but consider the value of these statements.
The plot of A Corner of the Veil is predictable and linear. We expect the priest to journey through the monastery’s chain of command and he does. We expect the secret to leak out and it does. We expect opposition by those in power and there is.
Likewise the characters, though distinct, are stereotypical and lack depth. The proof is revealed to “the lunatic.” The letter is given to the “good priest” who nonetheless fears the end-of-times battle with the devil. The Casuists Provincial is self-serving and arrogant and the Archbishop, Cardinal, and Prime Minister are controlling. Characters who experience transformation do so quickly with only a few sentences to show for it, but the simplistic plot and characters allow the themes of the book to take center stage.
One obvious theme is doubt. It is foreshadowed on page one with Father Beaulieu’s inner struggle, “Every day … he asked himself the question: Was he happier in solitude or … At that moment the answer was beyond doubt.” Doubt is also dramatized in characters who react to the message with fear, unconvinced that God will protect them, and in characters who want to control the message, doubting that God’s way of doing things is better than their idea of what is necessary in life or even the purpose of life. Perhaps these characters doubt the reality of any god and view their religion as a business or a means of keeping societal behaviors in check. As one character so eloquently states, “We have so little belief, we believers.”
A second theme of the novel is the incompletion of God’s plan. The absolute proof is Father Maudieu’s eleventh letter to Father Beaulieu. Some Catholic biblical scholars believe that the number eleven marks incompletion—as when the twelve apostles became an incomplete eleven after Judas betrayed Christ. Maulieu praying “six weeks, one day, and two nights” is another detail of incompletion. His prayers carry him past the “six” days of creation—if each week of prayer represents a day in Genesis—reminding us that God completed creation only in the late hours of the sixth day.
But the central theme of A Corner of the Veil appears to be, as the title suggests, that of man’s accessibility to God—and whether we want Him dwelling among us or not. In the Bible, the veil (curtain) in the temple separated man from God, who resided in the Holy of Holies. When Jesus died and the veil was torn in half, Jesus destroyed the barrier between God and man to give us personal access to God. Yet, the title suggests that the veil is still in place and the plot indicates that man’s attempts to lift a corner of it will have cataclysmic results. Since Jesus destroyed the barrier between God and man, the present veil must be made by man, perhaps by “our own anger when our prayers don’t get us what we want and we act as if the divine plan had got fouled up.”
Communication with God is also symbolized early on in the novel. We learn that Dominique works at the switchboard where people need only ask to be connected with the higher-ups and it happens. Communication between God and man is explored further in the choices of the characters. Maulieu’s “one life goal is to find God through thought” and he chooses to pray extensively. Hervé is the underdog who socially advances and Dominique is the underdog who doesn’t, yet both embrace the message with unfaltering bliss (an act of faith).
In displaying a willful ignorance, other characters underscore this same issue of communication. These characters choose to keep their veils (symbolized by the letter of proof) in place and their communication with God at a minimum. Le Dangelot, the arrogant Casuists Provincial, refuses to read the letter and admits he has worked hard for his present life and doesn’t want it to change. Father Beaulieu initially considers throwing the letter away because he fears the end times. The religious and political hierarchies choose to “manage” and “control” the letter rather than receive the message it contains.
In the end, though, as mesmerizing as Cossé’s premise is, the novel does not deliver what it promises. First, it is a far cry from a thriller. There are no plot twists beyond minor delays and inconveniences and no complications that jeopardize the predictable journey. The reaction of one character does not increase tension in other characters in a significant or unexpected way. There is a surprise (or there was for me anyway) at the story’s end but it hardly qualifies the book as a thriller.
The structure of the book attempts to establish a race-against-the-clock type of suspense. Some chapters are only a paragraph long which successfully quickens the pace; each chapter is preceded by a single page stating the day, time, and sometimes the city such as “PARIS, Friday, 12:25 P.M.” These datelines imply that time is of the essence in the novel and that the exact day, the precise minute, is of consequence. Yet I found neither is true in this story.
Nor does there seem to be a reason to divide the book into “Part One: The Casuists” and “Part Two: The Politicians” (unless it is symbolic of the temple veil being torn in two). The reader easily understands that these two groups are invested in the outcome of the story and that the separation of church and state remains a contemporary issue. The story would not change, would not lose pace, with the deletion of the divisions. In fact, a reader could easily suspect that the parts and chapter title pages were added simply to make the book thicker.
Second, the story is anything but “hilarious” as it is described in the Foreword. The situation is grave; the characters are serious. They are in the throes of battle-with-the-devil possibilities and not exactly in a mood which easily makes a person laugh. At best, the novel has a few witty phrases that might draw a smile; but for me, they felt author-intrusive and out of place in this context. The lone exception, it could be argued, occurs when the Provincial expresses dismay that if the message gets out, everyone will live in peace, “We can’t have our whole Casuists province in France slipping into a way of life that is positively Franciscan.”
A Corner of the Veil presents an enlightening spiritual workout that challenges readers to examine their own doubts, their own place in God’s Plan, and their own communication with God. The novel will never lose relevance with time. It is rich in vocabulary and language that appropriately creates the ambiance of a foreign setting, of people with foreign ways of speaking, but also with concerns we recognize as our own. The novel is, however, for me, at best a sparkler when I expected fireworks.
ABOUT VICTORIA RYAN
Victoria began her writing career in sixth grade when Sister Perpetua made her pen her autobiography Eight Plus Eight Equals Chaos the story of growing up the seventh of fourteen children. Her two children’s books (When Your Grandparent Dies and When Your Pet Dies both by Abbey Press) are published in ten international editions and her essays have appeared in “McCall’s” and “U.S. Catholic” magazines. She is the founder and chair of the Mad Anthony Writers Conference, now in its eighth year, which has raised $40,000 for local literacy programs. She was among the first liturgical guitar players, Communion Distributors, and lectors for her parish. A former speech-language pathologist with degrees from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and national accreditation from ASHA, she is currently a writer, speaker, and community college instructor. She and her husband live in Hamilton, Ohio, where they raised six sons, three dogs, and numerous other pets she knew nothing about until last year’s family vacation. Please visit her at: http://www.thevictoriaryan.com/