The Religion

The Religion by Tim WillocksAuthor: Tim Willocks
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006)
Number of Pages: 618
How long it took me to read: 1 month, 3 weeks
Where I bought this book: A friend lent it to me.
ISBN: 978-0-374-24865-9

Like a Moth to a Flame

I was at a dinner party. There was lots of champagne. The tapas were bursting with colors and flavors as vibrant as the people serving them. The conversation eventually turned to religion; politics isn’t of much interest after you realize you have to do it all on your own anyway. Divergence into the esoteric reminded me of a story I once heard about secret societies dwelling in hidden tunnels beneath Malta’s temples. My host rummaged the corners of his apartment, searching for something with the passion of a man who’d just lost his crown jewel. The search ended in vain.

More champagne flowed. Between the baccalà and the flourless chocolate cake, inspiration struck. Twisting around in his chair, he opened the door to the closet at his back, and pulled out a book the size of three. And thus, my journey with The Religion began.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Their city crumbled around them as they marched. Here and there a wall collapsed as a ball from a Turkish culverin hurtled home. The debris entombed a handful of the men stumbling by, but no one dithered. Carla saw groups of old women sink to their knees and they wept and lamented and pressed crosses and beads and icons of the saints to their cracked and wrinkled lips as they passed by. Occasionally one of the valiant would stumble and fall as his wounds took their toll, and sometimes he would get up again and sometimes not, but the monks of the infirmary—now, like their brethren, monks of war—did not pause in their march or in their singing, nor did their legion, for they marched and sang to save the Holy Religion.” (p.519)

4. “The glass fell from her hands into her lap. For a moment she was deaf to the roar of the guns and blind to their fire, and to the birth of the day and the smell of the sea she was numb, and to the cool of the morning breeze her skin was callused. On her tongue was a taste as flat and lifeless and bitter and cold as brass. She sealed the vision glass in its leather case. She stood up on the rock. And she threw the glass into the sea.” (p.296)

3. “My friend Petrus Grubenius believed that even the sun is at the center of nothing more than its own small handful of cosmic dust. What is visible, what is known, is little compared to what is not, and most notions of God thrive on our ignorance. Yet the existence of the stars and constellations—and their influence upon us—of angels good and bad, of realms and hidden forces that lie beyond our grasp and beyond our dreams, does not require the existence of a governing deity. Nor does the fact of being demand a theory of Creation, paradox though that may seem, for if Eternity has no end, then perhaps it had no beginning. That there is flux is evident, for here we are, tossed like wreckage on a turbulent sea. That there are countless subtle patterns worked into that flux is evident too. Even blind Chaos has its purpose. And Fate is a web whose threads we acknowledge only when once entangled. But pattern or purpose or no, religion brings forth mighty legions of fools, that they may call each other devils and deny the inner nature of Things.” (p.86)

2. “Tannhauser fancied he could hear the clank of the wheels that cause the universe to turn. One of those moments when the architecture of your ambition was revealed to be a brothel built on sand; when the needle of the compass broke and all the clocks stood still; when the future you’d imagined and the future which gaped at your feet parted company forever.” (p.98)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Her eyes were of different colors, the left as brown as autumn, the right as gray as Atlantic wind. Both seemed alive with questions that would never be voiced, as if no words yet existed with which to frame them. She was nineteen years old, or thereabouts; her exact age was unknown. Her face was as fresh as an apple and as delicate as blossom, but a marked depression in the bones beneath her left eye gave her features a disturbing asymmetry. Her mouth never curved into a smile. God, it seemed, had withheld that possibility, as surely as from a blind man the power of sight. He had withheld much else. Amparo was touched—by genius, by madness, by the Devil, or by a conspiracy of all these and more. She took no sacraments and appeared incapable of prayer. She had a horror of clocks and mirrors. By her own account she spoke with Angels and could hear the thoughts of animals and trees. She was passionately kind to all living things. She was a beam of starlight trapped in flesh and awaiting only the moment when it would continue on its journey into forever.” (p.33)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

Of the 11 I brought myself to look up, here are a few new words that came to me through this book:

New Word: ragamuffin (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): a dirty shabbily clothed urchin
Synonyms: tatterdemalion
Origins: 1344; from Middle English ‘raggi’ ragged + Middle Dutch ‘muffe’ mitten; used by Langland as the name of a demon; sense of dirty, disreputable boy is from 1581
As in: “Thus, seven years ago, had Amparo arrived at Carla’s household, accompanying her mistress home with the long green cloak trailing behind her, like some barefoot and ragamuffin page in a tale untold.” (p.36)

New Word: demesne (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) extensive landed property (especially in the country) retained by the owner for his own use; 2) territory over which rule or control is exercised
Synonyms: 1) estate, land, landed estate, acres; 2) domain, land
Origins: 1292; from Old French ‘demeine’; from Latin ‘dominicus’ belonging to a master; from ‘dominus’ lord; respelled by Anglo-French legal scribes under the influence of Old French ‘mesnie’ household (and the concept of a demesne as land attached to a mansion) and their fondness for inserting -s- before -n-; essentially the same word as domain
As in: “…Tannhauser seemed to his fellows like a Mogul from some remote and outlandish demesne, and this was to his liking, for in mystery lay the notion of power, and in power lay his own notion of freedom.” (p.40)

New Word: chandler (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): 1) a retail dealer in provisions and supplies; 2) a maker (and seller) of candles and soap and oils and paints
Origins: circa 1325 candle-holder; 1389 maker or seller of candles; from Old French ‘chandelier’; from Latin ‘candelarius’; from ‘candela’ candle
As in: “The Wharf of the Knights Hospitaller was half a league distant from the Oracle and on their way Tannhauser and his entourage clattered over the cobbles past chandlers and ropewalks, spice magazines and granaries, bordellos and money changers and drinking dens similar to their own.” (pp.49-50)

New Word: raiment (noun)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): especially fine or decorative clothing
Synonyms: array, regalia
Origins: circa 1300’s; shortening of ‘arayment’ clothing; from Anglo-French ‘araiement’; from Old French ‘areement’; from ‘areer’ to array
As in: “Even as they watched, chains of slaves toiled in the moonlight to the whistle and the whip, naked and ghostlike in their caked raiment of dust and sweat and blood, heaving chunks of masonry from one pair of bleeding hands to another until the stones regained the rampart from whence they’d fallen.” (p.262)

New Word: keen (verb)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): express grief verbally
Synonyms: lament
Origins: 1811; from Irish ‘caoinim’ I weep, wail, lament; from Old Irish ‘coinim’
As in: “A hot wind keened from the deserts across the sea and sent ragged leaves of flame flying up at the stars, like pages torn from a burning book of prayer condemned and unread.” (p.452)


Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“God help me if I’ve just naïvely embarked upon another journey like the one I was dragged through with the Wraeththtu. I would very much like to finish this book in less than a year. Unfortunately, the bloodshed of the first 20 pages doesn’t prove promising, nor does the fact that I have to look up at least one word per page. At least there’s a glossary.”

“In or around the 1560’s, the coastline stretching between Milazzo and Messina was a place of greed, debauchery, and filth (at least for the sake of this tale). The spice trade was sizzling, the port a lively hub. Chairs of green leather emblazoned with gold filled taverns serving drinks to accompany the view of voluptuous girls perfectly aware of their power to torture men with their beauty.

“In or around the 1990’s, Messina was a connecting port on the mainland for residents and visitors of the Aeolian Islands. It was where local bars unwittingly served gin and tonics to parched schoolboys unaware of what they were ordering. It was the place where I had my first strawberry granita topped with a generous smear of rich whipped cream. It was the backdrop of a rising red sun emerging from the simmering Mediterranean on that sticky summer morning I waited to embark on my first hydrofoil. It was the place hands first held, the place of first kisses, and second helpings of fresh pastries baked especially for the crowds of tourists connecting one limb of their journey to the next.

“Where once there was darkness, some light eventually shone. Where once there was war, new love eventually bloomed.”

“I’m not partial to stories composed of rough seas of characters. I prefer looking through the window of a single pair of eyes, a small handful at most.

“Willocks likes to fill pages with crashing waves of personalities; I’m drenched. Seeing as most are male, I can at least more easily identify the female protagonist’s voice, a task made more plausible with the sudden calm waters that pour off the page when we hear from Carla.

“To make sense of who the others are, I’m starting to associate them with other characters I’ve met on paper or watched on screen. Ludovico Ludovici reminds me of Silas, the self-mutilating character in The Da Vinci Code movie. I don’t know how well that reflects on the originality of the characters though, unless these are simply archetypes that follow around us regardless of what era we dip our reading toes.”

“The melodic flow of Willocks’ proses makes the more genteel of his gruesome scenes bearable; the gore dripping off some of the pages would be difficult to dry with the most absorbent kitchen towel. But it’s sentences like the following that awaken me from the self-preserving trance into which I fall at the first mention of vomit or bile:

‘Throughout the morning, as the cool was broken and the heat rose fierce and high, Orlandu pursued and lost and tracked and found, and lost and tracked again, the fugitive hound.’ (p.130)

“Not even the glossary could help me. There must have been hundreds of words. I stopped counting after the first few chapters. It makes me wonder how someone could learn so many words in one lifetime that are so uncommon to the masses. How many books would you have to consume to retain all the exotic verbiage? How many dictionaries referenced and definitions written out?”

“Maybe it’s the plane. I think it’s the plane. I’m open to being wrong, but I really think it’s got to be the plane that’s finally helped me bond with The Religion. I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the high altitudes or the fact that cross-continental flying affords hours of uninterrupted reading time, but this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve connected with an author’s words, or managed to discover the flow of my own, from within the cramped cabin of synthetic fibers and plastic tray tables (the cleanliness of which I very much question). Then again, it could be the jubilation of reading about the reunion of mother and son, or the touching scene in the Sacred Infirmary, that’s turned me around.”

“Nearing page 300, and I’m starting to get close to some of the characters; I think I’d even read a whole book about Amparo. The battles, though, I’d be happy to leave behind. Maybe I should have read the book jacket before committing.”

“Although not my favorite, the following two quotes are a clear example of the striking imagery Willocks serves the reader on his melodic plate of prose:

‘The fellow dropped to his knees and Tannhauser worked the sword down into his chest, and an uncontrollable nausea exploded up his gullet and his mace dangled by its wrist loop, and he doubled up over the sword, with both hands gripping the cross guard, and he vomited a torrent of gall and phlegm in the dying man’s screaming face.’ (p.280)

‘It seemed impossible that even gazi could endure such demonic treatment, yet they did; and as minutes and then hours crawled by, they climbed the bodies of the roasted and the slain, and scaled the fire-blacked walls and wormed through the embrasures, and combat at close quarters erupted high above the Ruins of Bormula.’ (p.397)

“For those who have the stomach for it, the brutality of the times is vividly depicted throughout.”

“The putrid smell emanating from within the bowels of the train’s bathroom stall just a few feet away from me is a fitting accompaniment to the vile imagery I’m exposing myself to on this Tuesday-morning commute. What mind-space did the author have to be in to write such grotesque scenes? I don’t want to know, but to a certain extent, regardless of how much I fight to keep my distance, I have to enter Willocks’ mind to feel the words. With each phrase tranquilizing me just a little more, I get to the end of the chapter and all semblance of a groggy weekday morning is overwrought with the pallid stench of one man’s meticulous observation of gore at its most climactic.”

“A heart-felt reunion of the soldier returning home from the war has made this book relatable; it’s made it acceptable; it’s made it real to me. Reunions, to which I’ve been privy more times than I wish to admit, are a main character in my story. Reunions, in and of themselves, are beautiful things, rich with heightened expectation, ripe with hope. It’s what gives cause to reunions that is my bane.

“I was watching a documentary yesterday. At one point, the screen flooded with an areal view of a city sprouting skyscrapers like weeds entangled in a web of exhaust-choked streets, where people looked smaller than ants, living lives appearing grander in their minds than in the eyes of their neighbors.

“At first, I reacted with excitement, ‘Oh, how wonderful! The hustle! The bustle! The grandiose sense of purpose and importance!’ Then the voice of the narrator walked into the comfort of my delusion, and spoke of the isolation that urbanization and modern culture have created in the lives of those who dare combat against the concrete jungle.

“I’m not sure if cityscapes can be entirely blamed for all the loneliness in the world, but I understand how living in a 500 square foot cage, walled with glass and stone, can create a numbing isolation difficult from which to escape. I can also understand how wanting to see the world can eventually weigh one’s life down with inevitable reunions, somehow always managing to be short-lived. I can understand, so now, I can relate to the book.”

“The lesson from this book (at least for me) is that humanity is not pretty. It can be vile and selfish and cruel. It can be barbaric, whether by cutting with a sword, poisoning with chemicals, or disempowering through the withholding of knowledge. If we choose to ignore or pretend the darkness doesn’t exist, we give it permission to thrive, feeding it with the fruits of our ignorance.

“However, if you believe in balance, which I do, then along with that ugliness comes a different side of humanity, one that has the power to nurture and protect. It’s this need to protect, to preserve our fragile sense of life, that contorts our perception of that which is. As much as we have the power to destroy, we also have the force to create. Whether it be through life, love, or imagination, we have the ability to contribute goodness and cultivate sustainability in this world.

“Every book is a teacher. Each book comes to us for a reason. There were many moments when I could not look directly at this teacher, just like there were many moments when I closed my eyes to the scenes of disaster-worn Haitians, or to the statistics that point to more people being overweight than underfed on this planet. Most recently, I even turned away from watching the videos of the protestors on Wall Street – people my age, highly educated with little to show for it on account of a system operating on an outdated view of the world.

“The villains had to die in this book for peace to resurface. How do we find peace in our stories? How will we write our next chapters?

‘…even in writing his end, a man may become one thing and not another. Perhaps in writing his end most of all.’ ~Fra Ludovico (p.588)

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  1. Marie-christine says:

    Thé cherries on top of The cake. One of The best review Ï Have read. Thank You.

  2. Joann says:

    Not for wealth or glory, but to save my soul. Phrases like this compel me to read Tim Willock’s books again and again. I wish he was more prolific as an author.

Leave a Reply to Joann