April 12, 2011
Verus and the Grand Assembly of Believers is Wendel Messer's third fantasy novel.
Toronto, two hundred years in the future, is a major center of a Western civilization that has grown rabidly individualistic and, not surprisingly, anti-religious. Into this harsh (by our standards) environment appears Verus, a street beggar who speaks only Latin and claims to be an ancient Roman. The sophisticated Verus, through a fortuitous encounter with a high school Latin teacher who becomes his translator, quickly becomes known to a curious wider world and an assortment of Latin-speaking intellectuals.
Although set in the future, the novel features characters that seem realistically historic including Pope Innocent XIV and Gregory, a Catholic monk who happens to be a top official in the Vatican and a closet atheist. The dialogue between Verus, Gregory, Innocent, and others propels the plot forward.
While the story line is clearly a fantasy, this isn't so much a fantasy novel as a fanciful, yet serious meditation.
The lengthy discussions between the characters and, of course, the contrast between the historic characters and the future setting, prompt the reader to contemplate the structure of human values, human motivations, and, especially, human potential. The theme of the novel seems to be that all moral corruptions are equally vicious. But can they be overcome? Can an uncorrupt homo mirabilis be created? That's the question with which Verus and his interlocutors wrestle ' certainly a timely thought to ponder and the basis for a fast-paced plot.
The dialogue in the novel between a two-thousand-year-old Roman and citizens of a society two hundred years in the future reprises the fierce, age-old contest between Athens and Jerusalem, between reason and faith. Readers, however, will enjoy the clever parody of the take-no-prisoners cultural discourse in American society ' between, for example, Congressional Republicans and Democrats, or those who believe in global warming/evolution/god/whatever and those who do not.
Every author brings his or her beliefs to a work, and Messer conveys the view that the meaning of human existence is created by humans themselves, not some transcendental source. 'Man is capable of giving himself purpose,' says one character, which could be the theme of the book. As the main characters discuss Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, the reader becomes aware of the link between classical Stoicism and our brand of Rationalism, which drives so many contemporary debates. It is nicely done.
The novel's undertone is clear: our future will be coarse and brutal to the degree we remain polarized and uncompromising. Since neither God nor science nor politics can explain all things, we have one big choice in life: whether or not to trust one another.
If all this seems heavy going, it's not. The story is written in an uncluttered style reminiscent of Ursula LeGuin, but with a sharper, more satirical edge. For example, the voluptuous Bibi keeps the high-minded philosophical discussions between the male characters grounded in base human instinct, a nod no doubt to the temptations to which contemporary political and religious impresarios so easily succumb.
Clearly, the author has done his research for the story, and found the right balances. The characters are rich, vibrant, and contemporary, as well as historically realistic. The moral debates are deep, yet accessible and escapist.
Verus is a rewarding book that should appeal to readers who enjoy a thought-stimulating fantasy.