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“Traction-engines!” he said with evident loathing. “I saw one scratching itself at the back of a haystack. I thoroughly barked at it.”

“They should be barked at,” I said, as politely as I could.

“Most certainly,” said the Dean. “If things like that got to think they could go where they liked without any kind of protest, we should very soon have them everywhere.”

On my first flight home from Australia I took Lord Dunsany’s novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter to read on the plane. Until today it was the only other book by the author that I had read and to my mind, is one of the most perfectly written fairy tales ever published. Written with an extraordinary visual detail and a gentle good humour, it cheered me up immensely.

I am happy to say that this second visit to the fiction of Lord Dunsany was equally satisfying.

Our narrator chances upon an eccentric Dean whose views on the transubstantiation of the soul capture his attention. As they discuss such matters over a few glasses of Tokay, the elderly gent suddenly takes a turn and begins to speak of events that occurred before he was born. His listener is astonished, as the degree of detail employed by the Dean seems beyond the capacity of a drunkard’s imagination. If anything the man sitting beside him appears refreshed and quick-witted, speaking fondly of the good old days. When he used to be a dog!

Slowly the story’s narrator becomes convinced that the Dean has access to memories from a former life, but he is frustrated by the drip of information he is able to wrangle during these strange drinking sessions. He learns how dogs relate to one another and view the ways of their Masters, the joys of the hunt and the pleasure taken in teasing pigs (barking “Pig! Pig! Pig!” really annoys them). Strangely the Dean mentions romance, but avoids discussing it directly. His fascinated drinking companion sets about attempting to rigorously extract as much information as he can, even to the point of measuring how many glasses of Tokay it takes to transport this man of God back in time.

This is a wittily written and amusing little fable. The Dean’s experiences raise a veil on the mysteries of Oriental theories of reincarnation for the narrator. In many ways the book teases the reader with its notions on religion. Is it arguing that the Christian church is too removed from debating questions of spirituality? Or is it proposing a stronger relationship between Eastern and Western varieties of faith? The appearance of a Maharajah sadly fails to bring any more clarity to the protagonist’s questions relating to his unusual friend. Unfortunately he is more interested in polo than the mysteries of the soul.

The dog’s life, it would seem, is the good life and the Dean (speaking as a dog) even argues that the British industrial revolution has taken too great a toll on the English countryside. There is a rich nostalgia on show for the Victorian era here, one that speaks more to the values of the author than anything else. This is still a story written with great verve and warm wit that argues the greatest thing you will ever learn is –

“Never trust a teetotaller, or a man who wears elastic-sided boots.”

A film adaptation was released in 2008 starring Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. My edition of the novel also includes the screenplay by Alan Sharp and a series of set photos from the filming.

I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

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