Review - Là a' Dèanamh Sgèil do Là by Meg Bateman (The Herald 2004)
Angus Peter Campbell has succeeded twice now in doing something very difficult: he has made the religious palpable, communicating essentially religious ideas in the form of a novel about believable people. If his earlier novel, An Oidhche mus do Sheòl Sinn (2003), was about love’s power to forgive and to let us reach a greater humanity, this novel is about eternity. Again and again, I felt nervous that there would be a point in the novel when dogma would overtake experience, and the plot would be lost to all but the converted. But this never happened because Campbell makes the whole real to his reader through the lives of his characters.
The novel is set in the future and the time for easy archetypes in more or less over; most people are defined by having a mix of cultures in their backgrounds The protagonist, Seòras, is English, an agnostic and a Gaelic learner. His wife, Catriona, was brought up in Soay and educated at St Hilary’s in Edinburgh, of a Norwegian mother and an Edinburgh father. They are a modern couple, thoroughly self-reflexive, reconstructed and sceptical. At the very least, the novel is a tender portrait of their relationship, of the love which they nurture and which heals all that was difficult in their lives hitherto. However, this developing love is also the key to the main themes of the novel: what should we do in the face of despair and what endures of our efforts?
The novel purports to be the text typed by Seòras in the 2040s in an asylum where he spends ten years as a “prisoner of language”. The threat of Al-Qaida has caused the west to unite in self-defence in a single totalitarian regime where all is aimed at the task of survival. There is no room for diversity: no language is permitted but International English; there is no room for personal freedom and creativity. Fear has killed the human spirit and life is hell on earth. Seòras is a prisoner of language because of his refusal to deny linguistic diversity. Gradually his relatively narrow perspective on the survival of the Gaelic language grows into a conviction that all sorts of diversity - cultural, animal, plant and mineral – should survive. His illegal writing of his memoirs in Gaelic is an act of protest against totalitarianism. Like the American writer, William Faulkner, he refuses to accept the end of man, and accepts the privilege Faulkner confers on the poet, “to help man endure by lifting his heart...” Fear has not quashed Seòras’ courage to speak out about what he has seen and felt.
The writing is ambiguous and subtle enough to let its message be understood either in terms of humanism or of Christianity. We see that the human spirit has the power to prevail over brutality. The final scene of the life everlasting is unequivocally the summation of the Christian hope of life over death, but I don’t think the agnostic reader need be alienated at this point, because the scene can also be read as a symbol of the endurance of human dignity and love.
The title of the book, Là a’Dèanamh Sgèil gu Là, is taken from Psalm 19 when all of creation praises its maker in doing what it does naturally. While Seòras and his wife first take on Gaelic in a belief in linguistic diversity, they grow to see every language, every aspect of creation, as being shot through with the word of God. What starts as a personal choice to learn Gaelic widens to a celebration of all diversity as holy and God-given. Seòras’ first understanding of his writing was that, like God, he was making something out of nothing, that in humanistic terms, he was refusing to lose faith in human creativity: gun fheàrr coinneal beag a lasadh seach an dorchadas a mhallachadh. He grows to understand that his task is not so enormous: Christ’s love is the starting point from which we can make something in the face of despair. His wife understood this first; he, belatedly comes to her understanding at the end of the book, and instead of feeling patronised by her love, he realises that living in love, loving what there is, rather than fearing what is not, is our right human action in the face of the hell of totalitarianism and war. Chan e eagal bhon rud nach eil ann as cudromaiche...ach gràdh dhan rud a th’ ann.
Humanist or Christian can interpret the final salvific vision according to their own lights, but I think all will find that the book communicates the author’s creativity, the diversity and beauty of language, wonder of creation and the power of love to let us be more. It is a celebration of, and an insistence on, the value of diversity. It is Campbell’s characters’ sense of wonder at the beauty of this diversity that fills them with the love of its Creator that lets them lead virtuous lives. In virtue there is no self- denial but a full-bloodied participation in Creation; it is the negation of despair.
The writing is beautiful and limpid. The constant debate between man and wife free the novel from any dogmatism or sense of didacticism. The imaginative, and sometimes, surreal, tone of the book allows the reader to engage with it in different ways. Cho faisg ’s a tha am mac-meanmna is an dà rìreabh. Some statements gave me a jolt: Seòras’ understanding that he was alive in eternity not in time; the postman who prayed for those in whose letter boxes he delivered his letters; his wife’s dream he saw too when she overtook him in his boat in a supernatural boat on the sea of eternity.
Angus Peter has produced two weighty novels in less than two years. The output is fascinating in its attempt to say the unsayable. They capture a great dynamism, a great facility for words. He seems to be writing at the height of his powers with an easy expansiveness where religious conviction, humour, earthiness and joy are easily melled into one, in something of the same spirit as the psalmist.