Friday, July 15, 2011


It would be easy to dislike this book. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe opens with vivid descriptions of pilgrims who have come to Lourdes to healed juxtaposed with memories of Tóibin's Irish Catholic upbringing, hinting at mysteries and beauties that the rest of the book will, one hopes, elaborate on. This is not that book, though.The purpose of this book isn't to illuminate the Church or a part of Europe. Its stories of finding bars and beers and lunches and flights and hotels and interviews with whatever English speakers he happened to run into, it feels at times like a look behind-the-scenes of the making of that book.

But gradually it becomes clear that the book is actually about Tóibin's failed struggle to understand what he is seeing, whether a pilgrimage site, an abandoned church in the former Soviet Union, or the mass appeal of Pope John Paul II, who makes frequent appearances.
His politics are those of an earlier generation, of an intellectual and anti-fascist left that was skeptical of religion, and his own ex-Catholic sensibilities are shaped as much by the history of religious war in Ireland as by anything spiritual. As a result he cannot make sense of the religious experiences he sees everywhere in Europe. He can find no connection between those politics and Catholic sensibilities in Slovenia or Spain even contemporary Ireland, no connection between what he sees as the medieval sensibilities of the Pope's legions of fans and his own patriotic (though not “nationalistic” in the Irish political sense) Catholicism.

A few quotations illustrate this well. Early in the book he comments on a mass delivered by the Pope in his native Poland:

The sermon once more was philosophical and poetic, at times obscure. At the end of the Gospel the Pope lifted the Testament up in a dramatic gesture. If you nothing about this religion, it would seem oddly attractive, wonderfully speculative, the rituals exotic, appearing to place beauty and atmosphere—the colours, the poetry, the music, the setting—above all esle. Someone told me that there were groups from the former Soviet Union here who knew nothing about the religion, but had come because of their admiration for the Pope. I wondered would they go away, like the early disciples, wanting to spread the word.

Late in the book he sits talking with a fellow journalist and summarizes neatly the perspective of the book:

We didn't question the pilgrims' faith, we questioned our own fitness to be here; and I did not know as I stood up to go how much longer I would be able to stay, remaining with these half-medieval beliefs, half-pretending that I shared them.

It must be admitted that the book is a little scattershot. The chapters could probably be placed in any other order without loss, and since these chapters about different countries are usually no better than his sources, one can't help but wish Tóibin had perhaps gone about his interviews a little more carefully. Tóibin's prose, though, is as great as ever and his descriptions of people and places (many of them bars), however brief, are always a pleasure to read.

The book is best when Tóibin is discussing the complicated relationship betweeen Protestants and Catholics in Ireland and England, aided partly by a conversation with a very eloquent Terry Eagleton, professor of English at Oxford and an English Catholic. Eagleton, as well as a few other Catholics in England, describes the difficulties of living in a Protestant country and never feeling like is truly his country.

When Tóibin is off in Eastern Europe there are intriguing glimpses of history, summaries of the complex relationships between native and Soviet governments and the Catholic Church, but these are little more than glimpses.

“Catholic Europe”--the phrase sounds a little strange nowadays, almost as clunky and archaic as the word “Christendom.” If Tóibin can't quite take the mystery away, he has done a service reminding us of a hidden part of Europe. The book—this is admittedly a guess—is meant to challenge two widely held assumptions. The first is that modernization, defined by liberal capitalism and consumerism and post-industrial society, leads to secularization. The second is that along with modernization has come the end of ideological struggle, replaced by practical issues of bureaucratic management. The whole book seems to confront these two ideas, pitting scenes of “modern” life with the “medieval” scenes of worship, and the last chapter of Sign of the Cross is called “The End of History,” an explicit reference to that latter belief, about the end of ideology. The chapter closes in on a church in Tóibin's native Enniscorthy (also the hometown of the protagonists of Brooklyn and The South) where both Protestant and Catholic services are held, as though all religious divide has come to an end. Tóibin seems to suggest, in this chapter but also in the whole book, that, rather than the end of history, we are watching other forces brewing that he doesn't pretend to understand but that he also can't ignore.

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