The Death of a Pope

By Piers Paul Read

Ignatius Press. 215 pp. $21.95

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Piers Paul Read's new novel opens with three men - one Irish, two Basque - on trial in London, charged with "conspiring to cause an explosion with the intent to take human life."

Two of the defendants have connections to terrorist organizations. Fergal O'Brien was a member of the Provisional IRA and continues to associate with the Real IRA. Asier Etchevarren was a member of ETA, the Basque separatist group.

The third defendant has quite a different background. A laicized Jesuit priest, Jose Uriarte is a senior aid worker for Misericordia International, a Catholic refugee service. For the last four years, he has been working in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Uriarte is, in fact, the central figure in the trial. He does not deny approaching Etchevarren, a childhood friend, about getting some Sarin gas. He denies intending to use it "to take human life." He says he wanted to use it on the livestock of the Arab militias in Darfur. This, he says, would prevent them from continuing their brutal raids.

He proves a formidable witness. When the prosecutor tells him his story "beggars belief," Uriarte calmly explains that "the Arab militias value their horses and camels more than their women and children. They are hard men, as hard as the rock in the desert from which they come. Their horses and camels and cattle mean mobility and the means of survival."

All three are acquitted.

Kate Ramsey, one of the journalists covering the trial, is much taken with Uriarte and asks him for an interview. Uriarte, however, shifts attention from himself to his work and invites her to accompany him to Uganda and see what Misericordia International is all about.

Kate is a lapsed Catholic whose favorite uncle, Luke Scott, is a priest with a distinctly traditional bent. When Kate tells Father Luke that Uriarte is "really kind of charismatic," the priest remembers the meaning of the Greek word charisma - "a gift from the gods."

"As so often is the case with gifts from God," he reminds himself, it may be "purloined and misused by the devil."

In Africa, Kate sees poverty and suffering she had never imagined. She falls ill herself and Uriarte makes sure she is well cared for. They do not exactly become lovers. More precisely, they make love and she falls for him.

He takes her with him to Cairo and introduces her to some Copts, one of whom is a chemist. Uriarte tells her he is going to help the Copts - much persecuted in Islamic Egypt and, he tells her, desperately in need of money - by smuggling out of the country a valuable scroll. She insists on carrying the scroll herself, since she is less likely than he to be subject to undue scrutiny. He reluctantly agrees.

The narrative threads all converge in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II. Father Luke is there because he has been alarmed by a visit from David Kotovski, a British security agent who had come to know Kate when he posed as a fellow journalist during Uriarte's trial. Kate is in Rome because she is covering the conclave to elect a new pope. Uriarte is there and has paid a visit to a cardinal who long ago had made a pass at Father Luke when both were seminarians. That cardinal's assistant, Monsignor Perez, pays a visit to Father Luke and asks him to hear his confession.

Read's book is short but concentrated. The foregoing actually only hints at how subtly complex the plot is. But what really makes the book work is its ambiguity.

Kate is right: Uriarte is charismatic. He is both persuasive and forceful. He genuinely cares for the refugees he works with. And they love him. Just as Thomas Aquinas presents the best arguments he can think of for the positions he is disputing, so the arguments Read has Uriarte put forth on behalf of his social gospel sound eminently reasonable and are emotionally resonant - exactly what good temptations ought to be. The evil must appear to be good. And the advocates for good must appear timorous and old-fashioned.

Indeed, the day is not saved by any heroics on the part of the good people. The heroics are reserved for the likes of Uriarte. The only thing the good people have going for them is simplicity and decency.

Miraculously, that proves enough.

Frank Wilson is the retired books editor of The Inquirer and the proprietor of the blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.