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Wednesday, 16 September 2009 15:51

Entering the mind of a terrorist

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First up for review this week is Piers Paul Read’s The Death of a Pope (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-295-4), the story of a terrorist plot following on the heels of the death of John Paul II in which the terrorists work to kill the cardinals who have gathered to elect a new pontiff.

As conceived by Read, Juan Uriarte, a brilliant ex-priest, an advocate of liberation theology who works on behalf of the poor and downtrodden in Third World countries, makes a memorable villain. Through him, Read gives us access to the mind of a terrorist, reminding us of a dynamic of terrorism sometimes forgotten by so many today, that a terrorist is not only a hardboiled fanatic, but also an idealist. Uriarte believes so strongly in his cause that he uses anyone — the lovely reporter Kate Ramsey, a cardinal of the Church, and any number of innocent bystanders — to achieve his murderous goals. Near the end of the novel Uriarte offers this insight into his philosophy of compassion and blood.

Kate has left the flat, Uriarte repeats the words of Saint Paul over and over again, sitting hunched on the edge of the sofa and watching the coverage of the conclave on CNN. Who could doubt that God was for him? His impossible project is about to come to fruition. “I come to bring the fire and the sword,” Jesus had said, using the images pertinent to his times. Here was not fire but nerve gas and detonators rather than the sword. But the cause was the same: truth, love, liberation — the end of the perversion of Christianity by a cabal of stubborn old men.”

Truth, love, liberation: these are noble ideas which have also served as the banners of tyrants for the last century. Against them in The Death of a Pope, Piers Paul Read has placed two men: Kate’s priest-uncle, Father Luke Scott, and David Kotovski, a British anti-terrorism agent. Kotovski spends much of The Death of a Pope alternately wooing Kate and trying to track down Uriarte, while Father Luke serves as a foil to the corruption of the cardinal, to the ugly idealism of the terrorists, and the loss of faith suffered by Kate. He is a priest who questions himself yet believes beyond his own limitations in a supreme being.

“Luke recognizes that in some ways he is a ‘spoiled’ priest .... He accepts that if he were to spend as much time in prayer as he does watching television he would be a better priest, but he knows his own limits and assumes that God knew them too.”

Of all the characters in the book, Kate Ramsey is perhaps the most sympathetic. Unlike Kotovski and Uriarte, two antagonists who clearly have the strength to battle to the death for their causes, Kate is a woman caught in the middle of their war who is at the same time fighting to find her identity. In her trip to North Africa, for example, where Uriarte has invited her to witness the impoverished camps of refugees, she struggles to maintain some journalistic objectivity even as she falls under the spell of the idealistic and handsome ex-priest.

The Death of a Pope satisfies readers on several levels. Read gives us a look inside the circles of modern terrorism and the cross-traffic between radical groups whose surface objectives would seem to preclude them from ever working together. He performs a seemingly credible job in his depictions of counter-terrorism. Most of all, however, Read reminds us that the struggle is not so much a conflict of bombs and bullets and nerve gas, but one of ideologies. The Death of a Pope should give us pause to reflect on where we ourselves stand in the worldwide ideological wars now being waged on every continent of the globe.

•••

In The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, Conroy goes on at great length about the magical spell Eugene Walter cast over him with his words, his enthusiasm, and his cooking. Conroy’s description has in turn entranced his readers, who have gone in search, via the Internet and used book stores, for the writings of this Southern eccentric. Author of several novels, award winning short stories, fine poetry, and the best-selling American Cooking: Southern Style, in the Time-Life Series, Walter also worked as an actor in Italy, composed music, and befriended admirers from Paris to Rome to Mobile, Ala.

Readers interested in this unusual man can read about him in Milking the Moon, an oral autobiography put together by Walter’s friend, Katherine Clark. Another overlooked book which offers Walter’s personality along with many of his special recipes is Delectable Dishes from Termite hall: Rare and Unusual Recipes. Here are a lifetime of recipes from Paris, Rome, and Walter’s beloved South. Scattered throughout Delectable Dishes are wonderful bits of advice on cooking, stressing especially the importance of fresh ingredients. Of pepper, for example, Walter writes:

“Never use the dead dust sold as ready-ground pepper. Don’t bother. Freshly-ground pepper has volatile oils which only last about an hour after grinding. This oil is an aid to digestion, a stimulant to appetite, and as recent researches in England would have us believe, a help in cleansing the blood, rather after the fashion of garlic. But dead dust is only dead dust.”

I don’t know about cleansing the blood, but a recently purchased pepper mill has added flair to my own meals.

Thumbs up for Termite Hall.

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