We all know the parable of the prodigal son.
The prodigal goes to his father, demands his inheritance early, and wisps away to waste his fortune in lasciviousness and profligacy. The son’s life degenerates to the lowest possible point: he finds himself longing for the pods upon which the swine eat. As the son realizes the depths to which he has descended, he experiences an epiphany in his reasoning process: his erstwhile life presents itself to his consciousness, and his conversion process begins. As the prodigal son returns to his father, he experiences a continual and ongoing recognition of his own sinfulness and of the generosity and love of his father, a love of which he knows he is not worthy. We then are treated to the emotional reunion, when all attempts at confession are swept aside as the son is embraced by his father, as contrition is greeted with mercy. Quite simply, it is one of the most powerful stories in all of Scripture.
But the story of the prodigal son is focused almost entirely on the son. We are not privy to the internal experience of the father. We know that the father was a man of compassion, anticipating the return of the son, willing before even seeing him to forgive all, to restore all, if only given the opportunity. But ultimately, we don’t know what the father’s sacrifice really cost.
Michael O’Brien’ s newest novel, "The Father’s Tale," is an attempt to approximate that sacrifice. O’Brien has made his name as an author by taking religious themes and presenting them in a unique way. His penchant for recognizing and highlighting the spiritual battles that underlie any physical suffering in the world is well known. But in his latest novel, his ambition has magnified.
Within the first hundred or so pages of this thousand-plus page work, the reader is already thinking in his mind “prodigal son.” But as the work continues to develop and as the plot unfolds, it becomes more and more evident that the book is not about the son, but about the father: about the sacrifice that the father willingly makes to prepare the way for the return of the son.
This process takes the form of an international mystery novel-style jaunt across the entire earth. A large portion of the work takes place in Russia, a prodigious narrative coincidence since the protagonist father happens to be a peddler of rare Russian books in rural Canada.
The analysis of and familiarity with Russian literature that O’Brien displays in the narrative is impressive, if at times tiresome. It is evident to those familiar with 19th and 20th Century Russian literature that O’Brien is himself attempting to offer a contribution to that same genre. His intense psychological penetration of the characters equals in my opinion that of Solzhenitsyn, and at times approaches even Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
To the extent that O’Brien’s prose sticks to the intricacies of the human heart and to his thoroughly enjoyable dialogue—which is true to the Russian tradition even in its occasional translated stiltedness—the novel soars. But it is difficult to overlook the absurdity of the plot, which drags unwilling readers through long stretches of travels and city descriptions and unnecessary detours, interrupted by a thoroughly delightful Siberian pastoral which itself could qualify as an excellent short novel, before degenerating into ridiculous surrealism as the father approaches the consummation of his quest.
It seems that the plot of the novel could have been much simpler (saving perhaps 300 pages) while retaining the excellent analysis of human nature discovering its own faults and coming to grips with its own frailty.
The Siberian portion of the novel truly soars once the exigencies of travel are stowed away. The protagonist is forced to come to grips with his own unavailability to his sons as he providentially is offered the opportunity to participate in the raising of two young Russian boys. He also must cope with his own loneliness and self-imposed isolation at the death of his wife as he befriends a Siberian doctor whose kindness and complexity provokes thoughtful self-assessment on the part of the protagonist. These pages—a significant portion of the book—are O’Brien at his best.
Ultimately O’Brien reveals a fundamental truth about the faith: the suffering on the part of the father that made possible the return of the prodigal son was far greater than the suffering that prompted the return on the part of the son. We know this to be a theological truth: the suffering that Jesus Christ endured to open the way to reconciliation with the Father was far greater than any suffering that we could ever experience in a life filled with suffering. Any suffering we experience that might prompt our own contrition cannot be compared to the suffering of Christ in preparing the way.
"The Father’s Tale" is a story of reconciliation, of the surprising nature of grace, which often leads us into situations we could never have expected and of the nature of true love—love that motivates even the most extraordinary of actions. The book is not without its flaws, but the power of the story is extraordinary. Without question, this latest novel marks what could be a major turning point in O’Brien’s writing. I await his next book with great anticipation.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.