Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?
Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.
Ruins of an English monastery
In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.
I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.
Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.
One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.
But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.
The Pilgrimage of Grace
There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.
And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.
The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.
It came from the deep, or the dark… I don’t know – but it eventually came once Jason Zeeman had warmed up the chilly Joburg crowd ahead of Tree63′s reunion gig at Bryanston’s New Life Church on 16 April. Now all that stood in the darkness; yes, all that stood between us and the rock and roll reunion about to wreck us was the glint of lamplight bouncing off John Ellis’ gleaming genius pip.
All pictures by Paul Elliott.
Looking like a henchman, playing like a boss and fuzzed up like a Middle Eastern metallurgist, Darryl Swart bliksemed his pots and pans all night long, with much passion and agility. I had forgotten how tight these guys actually are, switching and swinging from rockstar to rasta and back again, with John’s witty cover song slip on Hey Jude in the middle of a Marley tune getting the crowd laughing along.
There are two kinds of guitarists; face-pullers and breathers. Now the thing with breathers is that you wouldn’t be able to tell if they were worrying about the stove still burning back home, even in the middle of a chorus. Face-pullers on the other hand, always look as if they are either having a stroke or, more honestly, thinking: “Crap… I haven’t played these songs in years, what the hell is a D# Minor 13 flat 5?*”
*Index finger on the A string, I think.
When Harry met Sally, or John met, er, John … or his dad. No-one was quite sure what this fan was yelling, but his name was John as well and predictable banter ensued. John (Ellis, not the random lunatic in the crowd) is a seasoned and sharp entertainer and easily converts awkward into fine with the elegance of water into wine.
Look, here’s the bottom line. No really. He plays the bottom… – I’ll stop*. Daniel Ornellas is sublime. His playing is everything a three-piece needs. Bullet-proof, reliable, right on time all the time and providing all the harmonic change that is the mystery magic of melody partnership. If you want to know where the secret sauce is in John’s rhythm inversions, take a look at Daniel’s bottom end.
*Couldn’t help myself.
The night delivered everything and more. John looked like he was having an absolute ball and Daniel had either sweat or tears on his face, both profoundly telling and apt for a grand reunion gig. Darryl was the conveyor belt for the whole thing and I have a new respect for the man, having not seem him in his rightful position for about a decade. He’s a machine. With a heart.
The Tree trilogy, finally re-published in hardcover. This band is still a great read. Don’t wait for the movie. Go see the audiobook.
Another book that tells it like it was in the apartheid period in South Africa.
A comparison that immediately springs to mind is A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. In Brink’s book there is a kind of Kafkaesque horror that builds up relentlessly as a white Afrikaans-speaking school teacher gradually discovers what lies behind the mask of the society he lives in.
Jonty Driver tells much the same kind of story, but from the perspective of an English-speaking South African. In Shades of Darkness, Jamie Cathcart, a school teacher who has been living in exile in England since the 1960s, returns to South Africa in the 1980s to see his brother who is dying of cancer. His return reawakens memories of the past, lost friends and lost love. In a way the cancer that was destroying his brother’s life is an allegory of the cancer of the apartheid ideology that was eating South African society.
This book lacks the relentless build-up of horror in A Dry White Season and in that sense it is more true to life. Much of the story deals with the ordinary things of life and death, health and sickness. For many white people who lived through the apartheid period, the underside of the society hardly intruded at all, and it was quite easy to ignore it and pretend that it was not there. For the protagonist of the story, however, it intrudes when some of his friends are detained by the Security Police, including one that he thought was completely a-political, and he becomes aware that he himself is under surveillance.
In some ways it is the story of my life and times, and at many points of the story I had a sort of “been there, done that” feeling. I don’t have a brother, much less one who was dying of cancer, but the kind of society that Driver describes is real; it really was like that.
It is also one of the few novels I have read where I have known the author, though I did not know him well. Jonty Driver was an acquaintance, not a friend. He was president of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) when I was a student, so I met him at a few student gatherings in South Africa and in England, and at a friend’s wedding. But after reading this book, I feel I know him better, because in the book I think I can see the world through his eyes, and it looks quite similar in many ways to the world I saw. It’s also a human story of love and loss, joy and grief, revenge and mercy.
If you’ve never been in South Africa, don’t be put off reading it. Many people have enjoyed reading Doctor Zhivago even though they have never been to Russia, so you don’t need to have been to South Africa to enjoy reading this one.