In this brilliant debut novel, William Brodrick draws upon his experience both as an Augustinian friar and as a practicing lawyer to create the unforgettable character of Father Anselm, a monk who must search the darkest corners of history to try to fathom the human capacity to do evil.
When Eduard Schwermann, an alleged Nazi war criminal, claims sanctuary at Larkwood Priory, the Church is thrown into a dilemma. Does it harbor him and risk a scandal in the media or cast him out into a world that wants to punish him for crimes he insists he did not commit? In the weeks leading up to Schwermann’s trial, Father Anselm must find out why the Church had granted Schwermann sanctuary fifty years earlier—and apparently helped him escape from France and assume a new identity in Britain. As Anselm conducts his investigation, others quicken their own pursuit of the truth about Schwermann, about the Holocaust, and about their own tangled personal histories. Most significant among them is Agnes Aubret, a dying French expatriate who risked everything—and lost—to save children from the concentration camps. In the brief time that remains to her, she wants to bring Schwermann to justice, but must reveal her own startling past to do so.
A tale of great moral complexity, stunning reversals, and a Shakespearean tension between appearance and reality, The 6th Lamentation is both a fast-paced thriller and a moving meditation on truth, history, and the human predicament.
ABOUT WILLIAM BRODRICK
William Brodrick, in a career change that reverses Father Anselm’s, was an Augustinian friar before leaving in order to become a practicing barrister. This is his first novel and Agnes’s story is loosely based on the wartime experiences of his mother. He lives in France with his wife and their young children.
A CONVERSATION WITH WILLIAM BRODRICK
Could you describe the genesis of The 6th Lamentation? How does you own family history relate to the novel?
The novel springs from two sources. The first is personal. During the occupation of Holland my mother was part of a group who tried to smuggle Jewish children to safety. She was caught and imprisoned. The memory of what the Nazis did lay fresh upon her for the rest of her life. She talked little about her own experience, but always with a charged brevity. I wanted to write a memorial to her and that terrible time. The second source is rather prosaic. For a long time I had thought that a former lawyer who had become a monk—a natural blend of the practical and the reflective—would make an interesting character in fiction, especially if he was a person of faith who understood the troubled questions of today without possessing any trim answers. The novel grew from bringing together these two streams of interest.
As someone who left the monastery to become a lawyer, do you now see issues of justice more in terms of their legal or their theological implications? Or is it impossible to separate the two?
I cannot separate them. Or perhaps I should say the imperative to implement justice raises both juridical and theological questions. On the one hand we must constantly interrogate our legislative systems, asking whether they adequately recognise and enforce identified rights. But absolute justice is always elusive. Certain rights are not recognised; others are difficult to protect; and the law cannot restore to victims what they have lost, not least when it is their life. These reflections can prompt theological discourse, because we are confronting not so much the limitations of legal systems as the problem of evil, along with the mystery of God’s relationship to the world. While these questions imply a standpoint of faith, it seems to me that everyone asks them at some point or another. My novel, and indeed anything else I may write, is very much concerned with this territory. Incidentally, I chose the name ‘Anselm’ for my character, after the medieval saint, lawyer and theologian, because for him the starting point lay in faith seeking understanding, not understanding seeking faith. These are deep but inviting waters.
The 6th Lamentation shares characteristics of both tragedy and comedy, with the final family reunion scene serving nearly the same function as a wedding in that it brings about a number of reconciliations. Do you think your book is, in the end, an affirmative, optimistic story?
Emphatically so, but the tragedy remains what it is. This is important. It is human beings who transcend circumstances, not circumstances that turn out to be not so bad after all. This is the mysterious nature of the human spirit that I tried to explore through Agnes: she survives, but not at the expense of the experience that, in fact, overwhelmed her. She has reached this almost mystical state of self-possession even before any reconciliation with the past and her family have occurred (at least, I think so). Indeed, by the end of the novel all the main characters have come to an inner resolution of sorts. Taken together, they presage something greater than their personal journeys. The reunion scene, then, has an eschatological quality: it is the gathering in of broken pieces, without taking anything away from what went wrong. In fact, it is not just restoration, but benediction, for Agnes finds herself the head of a family she knew nothing about. And yet the memory of those who were lost is ever present. The most telling ‘reunion’, however, occurs elsewhere, and it is the beginning of a relationship: that of Salomon Lachaise and Max. This is a reconciliation in the most unthinkable of places. From this perspective, I suppose the whole novel is a statement that all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, regardless of what may happen. It should be noted that the last line of the book is given to those that were taken away.
Much of the novel’s plot revolves around misjudgements and false appearances. Why have you made these such prominent features of your book?
In a sense this was not a decision—it emerged in the writing. But since the novel, in part, explores the importance of forgiveness, I did want to stress the consequences of apparently justified condemnation. Throughout the narrative everybody has good reasons for the erroneous judgments they make. But assumptions are allowed too much root room. As a result everyone suffers. Father Chambray even leaves his Priory. The role of the Church seems deceptive, but another complexion emerges when all the facts are known. The irony, however, is that where right judgement was possible, the opportunity was defeated by a failure to see the evidence for what it was. As Salomon Lachaise bitterly observes, Schwermann was exactly what he appeared to be.
What, in your view, is the moral value of getting history right? Are we in danger of forgetting the Holocaust now that those who experienced it will soon be gone?
I think it was Santayana who said that unless we remember the past we are condemned to repeat it. Hence it is a matter of duty. But history is also about honouring and preserving memory and that, too, is a moral imperative. These twin obligations are never exhausted, for ‘getting it ‘right’ is a matter of constantly refining our understanding. This is one of the reasons why the book is so concerned with words and the fragility of language: in the end that is all that we will have; the witnesses, of necessity, pass on. Thus, I believe the Holocaust will be remembered, if only because of the reverence, quality and commitment of modern scholarship. If there is a danger, it lies perhaps in a complacency to which we are all prone: that species of wilful ignorance whereby knowledge of detail is left to professionals. This can blind us to the implications of circumstances that should stand out as a warning. Then the informed individual becomes the prophet shouting from a sideline. And it is frequently the lot of prophets to be at least misunderstood if not rejected.
What are you working on now? Do you have an idea for your next book? Will we see Father Anselm again?
My next book involves Father Anselm revisiting a trial that was the foundation of his reputation. Or, rather, the trial revisits him. A lawyer involved in the case dies leaving a key to a safety deposit box. Its contents demonstrate that Anselm has been the unwitting agent of a moral catastrophe. Here, I suspect, is what Graham Greene called ‘the pattern in the carpet’—the recurring preoccupations of an author that define his or her work—for once more I find myself writing about appearances, the potency of the past and the awful paradox of culpability without blame.
What writers have been most important to your own work?
I can’t point to any conscious influences. Intuitively, I suspect I’m indebted somehow to Richard Powers. The writer who has most influenced me (as opposed to my work) is probably Thomas Merton. That said, Aristotle, Aquinas, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Moltmann, Rahner, Sobrino and a host of others have all marked my thinking. As for technique, I bore in mind Bertrand Russell’s short and invaluable essay ‘How to write’, which contains some wonderful maxims for expository prose. I also plundered the letters of C S Lewis who was frequently asked by young people for advice on the craft of writing. The replies, often a half page in length, are gold dust.
- Many books, both fiction and nonfiction, have been written about the Holocaust. What makes The 6th Lamentationdistinctive? What does it add to our knowledge about the Holocaust and its aftermath?
- In his introduction, William Brodrick writes that Anselm is not to be taken as “someone who has the answer to why evil often seems to prevail over what is good, but as a companion to anyone who asks the question.” What makes Anselm such a capable companion to anyone who ponders the balance of good and evil in the world? What kind of person is he? What virtues does he demonstrate throughout the novel? What are his weaknesses?
- Agnes is the great matriarch of the novel. In what ways does her life as a mother and grandmother define her? How does her writing, and the revelations it contains, change the lives of those around her?
- After Agnes learns that she has only a short time left to live, she says to herself, “Loose ends are only tied up in books” and pushes aside “the lingering, irrational hope that her life might yet be repaired by a caring author” [p. 5]. In what ways are the loose ends of her life tied up in this book? What are the parallels between the novelist and God as authors of individual human stories?
- When Anselm visits Rome and the Vatican, Father Conroy warns him: “Be careful. Don’t go by appearances. Nothing’s what is seems here” [p. 89], an observation that recurs in other contexts throughout the novel. Does the Church play a deceptive role in the story? Where else in the novel do we find that things are not what they seem?
- When Pascal Fourges announces that he’s going to try to find Schwermann, his father tells him “…we cannot make a synthesis of the past, and there comes a time when we have to forgive what we can, when it is better to forget what cannot be forgiven.” Pascal replies that “it’s about history. Getting it right” [p. 157]. Should Pascal have pursued Schwermann? What are the consequences, both good and bad, of that decision? Why is it so important to get history “right”?
- What motivates Anselm, Lucy, and Salomon La Chaise to strive so relentlessly to bring Eduard Schwermann to justice? How are their motivations both similar and different?
- Anselm asks, “What, then, was the Sixth Lamentation: the tragedy of a people or a personal testament?” [p. 63]. Which is it in your view? In what ways are historical and personal tragedies interwoven in the novel? How does history affect family and, through family, the lives of individuals?
- Near the end of the novel, Victor tells Anselm, “It’s all been an inexplicable mix of misfortune and luck. But since I am a religious man, I suppose I should look to Providence. Only that rather complicates things, don’t you think? Because there’s no accounting for the graces received, set against what went wrong, without hindrance, for so long” [p. 343]. Are the events that lead to the novel’s climatic reconciliations the result of luck or Providence, blind chance or God’s will?
- What are the major surprises and reversals that occur in The 6th Lamentation? What effect do these have on the reader’s sense of certainty about what is true and not true in the novel? What does the novel as a whole suggest about the instability of appearances and the danger in jumping to conclusions?
- At the end of the novel, Anselm tells Father Andrews: “Almost without exception, I misunderstood everything…. The list of misjudgments is too long to enumerate…all from prejudice, loose thinking, fancy” [p. 369]. What are Anslem’s most significant misjudgments? To what extent is nearly everyone in the novel guilty of misinterpreting what has happened? In what sense is the entire novel about the dangers of rushing to judgment?
- The 6th Lamentation ends with a moving family reunion, where true identities are revealed and true relations reestablished. Why is this the right way to end the novel? In what ways does this scene heal and to some degree reverse the Nazi horrors of fifty years before?