MONOTHEISM AS MISTAKE: that's the unintended conclusion one draws from Pilgermann, the story of an 11th-century pilgrimage to the Holy Land and a cross-cultural journey to metaphysical futility by Russell Hoban, the English author of the widely praised post- doomsday novel Riddley Walker. "Pilgermann" is German for pilgrim and the name taken by Hoban's narrator- hero, a young European Jew who, made a eunuch by Christian peasants, decides his going to Jerusalem may keep God from leaving the world. Saving God is dangerous business. Failing, the pilgrim may still save his soul-- but lose the reader.
As literary package tour, a dash through the First Crusade Mediterranean, the first half of Pilgermann has good pace and fine photo opportunities. Pilgermann leaves home when his punishment for cuckolding the town tax- collector--castration--turns him from the carnal Sophia to that other "sophia": wisdom. Accompanying Pilgermann, you will see on your left medieval Europe: crones in dark woods, singing children raped on the road, death on a pale horse, talking animals, and conversations with Christ. Coming up on your right is the Levant: pirates, high-walled cities, inscrutable tiled courtyards, polite Muslims, Frankish Crusaders eating Turkish bodies and tossing the heads over the walls into Antioch, where Pilgermann ends up in 1098, never to see or save the temple of Jerusalem, which fell a year later. Hoban has traveled this road and has done his homework too.
But Pilgermann isn't just historical sightseeing. Hoban wants to write The Blue Guide to God, the single God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Ambitious, learned, passionate, and humane, Pilgermann fails. Metaphysical futility is neither new nor necessarily crippling. Monotheism creates unsolvable paradoxes for anyone short of brain-death or this side of heaven. Aquinas with his tomes died a mystic, dismissing his life's thought as straw. Unfortunately, impossibility and immensity shrivel Hoban's art, a small matter sub specie aeternitatis but disturbing on those days one reads the novel.
Pilgermann occasionally thinks of God as an extravagant, infinitely inventive novelist. In the beginning of Pilgermann, Hoban's own invention is adequate to supply interesting scenes and events for the gnashing theological mind of his narrator. But when Pilgermann is besieged in Antioch, the city, his mind, and the novel subsist on air, climbing and reclimbing towers of increasingly abstract speculation to look down at the surrounding Crusaders and up at the three-religioned God who allows violence over his proper name and place.
Faulkner called The Sound and the Fury a "glorious failure." Pilgermann is an interesting one--interesting because the book didn't want to be a novel but probably had to be if novelist Hoban was to find an audience for his theological concerns. Would An Inquiry into the Nature of God in the 11th Century and Modern Times by Russell Hoban be published? reviewed? read? From the "Acknowledgments," which recalls Hoban's own trip to the Holy Land, to the "Quotes and References," which lists scriptural and other sources, one realizes this is not the religious novel other British writers--Greene or Golding or even Burgess--might write. Pilgermann starts as story and ends as Text, a collection of quotations and conundrums: the fortunate fall, the problem of evil, God's time as simultaneity or sequence, dream as the "real" reality, even the wise kid's question about an omnipotent God's difficulty with the unliftable rock. Hoban resolves 2,000 years of theological paradoxes by synthesizing Yahweh, God the Father, and Allah into the physicist's principle of spin and asymmetry in the universe, a Supreme Fiction abstract enough to dissolve some anthropomorphic problems but not far advanced from Aristotle's Prime Mover and hardly worth the 150 pages of tortuous preliminaries. At the limits of thought, the novel turns banal. "But what's it all about?" asks Pilgermann close to the end. "If I could tell you that it wouldn't be a mystery," replies God.
Progressively committed to abstraction, Hoban gives up the dramatic effect of fiction and reaches for the direct emotional effect of "engodded" voice--Pilgermann complaining, crying, cursing, praying, and wheedling like a committee of Jobs. With its constant rhetorical questions, imperatives, exclamations, ejaculations, fragments, and, especially disturbing, its repetitions, Pilgermannwants to jump off the page to lay hands on your shirtfront. "Think upon infinity--how wide and strange it is! Think, clod, think"--this comes to be the super-heated tone of Pilgermann's address. When he has body and action, when he's a character in a novel, Pilgermann's voice holds the reader; but when he is the voice of all the ages, Hoban loses both emotional and intellectual authority. The novelist has, I think, presumed the built-in power of his subject: "How the thunder rolls when certain words are put together! When certain mysteries are named!" But the artist, as Rilke said, must rename the world; he can't just recite it.
Maybe monotheism is a mistake only for the novelist. The Many, not the One or the All, is fiction's realm, a colored province of specifics and conflicts and desire. Pilgermann moves from castration to abstraction, understandable for him but not a wise course for the artist. Russell Hoban showed in Riddley Walker that he could invent a world--England 2,000 years after nuclear holocaust--and could give that world language and make it move. In Pilgermann, he recovers a world but not God. God may well be gone, but Hoban, a proven creator, should be back with better books.