November 15, 2001
Dear Mr. Van Luik,
I received your kind letter recently from my US publisher, and took the trouble to visit your website in order to read your review of Testament.
I must say that I was deeply impressed with your perspective. Of all the reviews of this book, no one has meditated so clearly, and wisely, upon the 'hidden' side of this book. Of course you are right: the relationship between Marcebru and Amedee failed because of an over-reliance on the word. This what I wanted to say: that in the modern word we tend to rely on text rather than experience to direct our deepest instincts.
Ms Skea completely missed the point talking about a 'quest' plot etc. She failed to see that the real story was the frission between the death roll (the past) and the accidental encounters (the present: and life) in the deepening of our spiritual life. Your allusion to the awl I liked very much. The book does pull up interesting material out of a 'plotless situation'. I wanted the narrator, the 'I' (not the author, I hasten to add) to become the anonymous interlocutor between a dead poet and his own confusion, in this case manifested in Amedee de Jois (a play on 'joy').
Of course I was conscious of Dante's present as I wrote. But I also wanted to leave the reasons for Amedee's death in limbo. Many of the characters that you meet in this book are memories of my own. I met just such an abbess as the one at Canigou in Chicester in 1967. She was my prototype. Thus the book is the sum of many rich encounters in life, in particular Amedee de Jois. She is modelled on a woman that I met in Mauritius in 1962, at the very beginning of my life as a poet. Her death has haunted me ever since. I did explore it in an earlier novel, hard to find now, 'The Painted Shore'. You might like to visit that one day.
In the end, I want Testament to reflect a more meditative level of fiction. I wanted its language to be as haunting as its subject. The death roll allowed me to introduce insights that a conventional novel would never allow. While few have recognized it, Testament is heir to the Symbolists of the 19th century, writers such as Huysmans and Laforge, and their bid to find another way of lifting literature into the realm of mysticism. Language can be spiritually potent if it is used in its richest context: that of the spirit moving towards its home.
I only wish that readers would recognize the book for what it is - not a simple novel, but a highly complex one masquerading as a 'quest'. It is a novel for this century, not the last one, mired as it is in realism and the technical experience of life. There is so much in each of the characters that one meets ( the orpailleur, for example) that could be explored in what they say to the reader. Few, if any reviewers noted the complexity of thought that lay behind each rather trivial incident in the work. It has waited for someone like yourself to at least scratch the surface, instead of making facile remarks about the 'quest'.
Last night I gave a talk at a local bookshop about an earlier book of mind on Aboriginal spirituality. A woman at the back suddenly asked me a question about 'white friendship' in Troubadour. I was flabbergasted! She had come not to hear about Australian Aborigines, but to ask me to explain this intrinsic condition. So there are readers out there who hold this book dear to their hearts.
Perhaps, if you have time, you might like to visit 'A Mapmaker's Dream'. Again you will encounter a strange and mysterious world of a monk fashioning a map of the world. I would welcome your insights on this - again - highly charged philosophic fiction that many have loved but few have trolled deeply in. Perhaps you are the person to do it!
In the end, I am committed to creating a new form in fiction, one that is more meditative, that explores areas that are entirely unpsychological, that broaden our understanding of the interlinking of all great cultures. Hopefully my books stand outside genera. They are not novels as such, but fictions. Homage to Borges.
I will be in America in February, in Michigan at Grand Rapids Museum, opening an exhibition of Aboriginal art, mine, and giving a few lectures. Is this anywhere near you?
I welcome your remarks and insights. I have sent it on to others, if you don't mind. The deeply personal nature of Troubadour makes it the one closest to my heart.
You may be interested to know that I have just completed a new work, Palace of Memory. This book goes further than the previous two to opening up the imaginary realm of the spirit. Set in Palermo. I will send you the cover design, just to give you a taste.
Do, if you have, time, visit 'Francis: a Saint's Way', recently out in the US. Again you will find there insights into Islam and its connection to Dante and Francis of Assisi, an area people just don't want to talk about.
Thank you for communicating.
My very best wishes,