Scrolls Reviews – A Canticle For Leibowitz

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jnr (ISBN 9780060892999)

This book haunts me.

A series of linked novellas rather than a straight story, it is a moving meditation on what makes us human and how it both saves and damns us.

To set the scene:- Earth has burned in the nuclear fires of the ‘Flame Deluge’ and the world’s governments have crumbled to ash.  In America the trauma has produced a reactionary movement called the ‘Simpletons,’ book burners who fear technology as the cause of the horror.  The first section ‘Fiat Homo’ finds us in the grip of a Dark Age, largely ignorant of our pre-apocalyptic civilisation, discoveries, art and culture.  Each following segment pushes us further forward in time, so that the revelations of each novella have room to impact upon the world and its society before the next story takes place.  Along the way we get to see civilisation gradually rising again through the agency of a religious order, and ponder whether or not man is capable of truly learning from the past.  The world is drawn with the finesse and simplicity of an artists practiced sketch, lending it an authenticity beyond the skill of most authors.  It’s conclusion is natural but no less moving for its inevitability.

Now, although I had a Christian upbringing I have firmly turned my back on religion, so I thought I would have a hard time reading this book.  Monks and all that.  Couldn’t be further from the truth as it turned out.

It’s a funny book, but not a comedy.  A book filled with immense warmth and good humour, despite the awfulness of its backdrop.  The focal characters are engaging, believable and utterly human.  Our two constants in this are the institution that is the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz and a mysterious individual we could take to be the Wandering Jew.   Between the two march the mass of humanity in all its admirability and its folly.

The monks of Saint Leibowitz, though fundamentally a Christian group, are more in the vein of Friar Tuck than Pope Benedict; practical, inquisitive, fallable and not above a little rule-breaking when necessity dictates.  If you’ve seen that classic episode of Babylon 5 ‘The Deconstruction Of Falling Stars’ you’ll have a good idea of what I mean.  In fact I’d bet an awful lot of money that the script writer read this book and thought – right, they’ll never let me do a film of it, but I reckon I could squeeze something out of it.

Their function is to discover, translate, preserve and increase the knowledge gathered from the ruins of our civilisation.  All relics are venerated by them and examined for meaning (the most treasured relic of St Leibowitz is a shopping list written just before the Deluge.)  Despite this silliness we identify with them because it is us they are trying to preserve.  We want them to succeed.  They are aspirational figures, and although it is easy to mock their devotion to a present day nobody, some of monks (portrayed as being the least properly religious) nevertheless feel holy in a way that is somehow seperate to religion.  [I guess I could get into the whole letter of the law versus spirit of the law debate, but I’ll leave that for a more appropriate time and place – maybe the guys from the Dissecting Worlds podcast could pick it up and run with it instead (hint).]

In counterpoint we have the Jew, a sometime helper and friend, sometime troublesome meddler who acts as a satirical commentator on both the monks of the Abbey and humanity as a whole.  He is a dirty and aged rapscallion, scornful and leering, yet one has the sense of a life lived over millenia, of a world view which we ourselves are brought to understand – through the structure of the book – as being completely rational.  That man in all his multiplicity is unchanging in essence.

Miller’s canticle is an elegiac song both high in praise for the ant-like nobodies who build their mighty structures in ignorance, and full of condemnation for their inability to raise their vision above and beyond the short spans of their own little lives.


Reviewed by Dion Winton-Polak

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