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The Catholic spirit of Piers Paul Read’s novels

Luca Fumagalli

Many have watched the movie Alive (1993), the story of a rugby team that, after having survived a plane crash in the Andes, turns to cannibalism in order not to starve, but few know that the author of the book on which the movie is based is Piers Paul Read, one of the most important contemporary British writers.

Alive, although it is not a novel, demonstrates the great psychological penetration and human passion that distinguish the best works of the English writer, who has also published other interesting non-fiction works, including the authorised biography of Alec Guinness.

Read, born in 1941, grew up in a Yorkshire Catholic family and studied in Cambridge. He is married and father of four children.

If every novel by him is different from the others, the only recurring element is the Faith, flesh and soul of his prose.

One of his earliest works, Monk Dawson (1969) – later adapted for television – tells the story of a priest tormented by doubts who finally leaves the priesthood. Nonetheless, it is not the usual story of an apostate priest: in fact, in the epilogue, there is a radical reversal of perspective and after his partner commits suicide, the former priest, now a journalist, realizes that he has made a serious mistake. Thus, Dawson ends his days in a Trappist monastery.

Similar themes also return in A Married Man (1979), a story of love, marriage and adultery reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Also interesting is The Upstart (1973), another work in Greene’s style on evil and revenge, and the recent The Death of a Pope (2009), a thriller that tells the plot hatched by a former priest in order to eliminate the conservative faction of the College of Cardinals.

In Read’s extensive bibliography, there are also novels in which Catholicism is less explicit and the protagonists are not English. The Professor’s Daughter (1971), for example, is set in the United States at the time of university protests against the Vietnam War, while A Season in the West (1988) transports the reader in the role of a Czechoslovakian writer who arrives in England to meet its translator.

Coming from a closed and oppessive communist culture, Josef Birek – this is his name – expects to encounter a freer world than the one he came from: needless to say, his hopes will soon be frustrated. Finally, The Free Frenchmen (1986) and Scarpia (2015) are two historical books, set respectively in early twentieth century France and in Italy besieged by Napoleonic troops.

However, Read’s bestseller is On The Third Day (1992). The plot, whose prologue closely resembles that of Richard Ben Sapir’s The Body, starts from the discovery in Jerusalem of the remains, dating back to the first century, of a crucified man on whose skull there are signs similar to those that could have been procured from a crown of thorns.

If the skeleton were really that of Jesus, it would mean that the resurrection never happened and that Christianity is just a bluff.

In 1991 Read also published an interesting pamphlet, Quo Vadis? The Subversion of the Catholic Church, which denounced the great doctrinal confusion that reigned in the Church, the same that afflicts the protagonists of his novels, all of which are well worth reading.