Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor review – a priest who opposed the Nazis | Exciting people

JJoseph O’Connor’s earlier work was instrumental in showing that modern fiction can tell stories of emotion and social status rather than works of populist ideology. Writing about second world war espionage and resistance is brave in this regard – there are many gold-plated stories of homosocial derring-do sold to men at airports – but anyone who buys a house of the Father in this prospect will find himself expected to think so. like a fantasy.

Like 2019’s Shadowplay, My Father’s House is woven with a historical record. There was indeed an Irish priest living in Vatican City involved in fleeing resistance fighters, escaped prisoners of war and Jews from Nazi-controlled Rome, and his colleagues share the names and biographical details of the characters in this book. O’Connor is clear that his characters “should not be trusted by biographers or researchers” and that sequences “which present themselves as real documents are works of fiction”. The writer’s challenge is to balance the impossibility of confusing what actually happened with the needs of the novel’s structure.

O’Connor achieves this balance with a certain style of structure and lyrics that are so powerful that we follow them with eagerness because of the uncertainty, the frustration and the disappointment as well as the great tragedy. The story is based on the recent third-person account of the priest, Hugh O’Flaherty, a historical fiction style by Hilary Mantel, combined with fictional interviews created for the radio show. radio in 1963 with seven hosts. escape the line under the guidance of Hugh. They all have unique and often funny accents: they are Irish, English, Italian, gentlemen and shopkeepers.

O’Flaherty’s movements around Vatican City and Rome in the hours leading up to “Rendimento”, the movement of a large number of hiding refugees and resistance fighters from the Nazi-occupied city, are well-organized. On Christmas Eve and watched by Gestapo leader Paul Hauptmann, O’Flaherty needs to distribute a large amount of money to the hideouts and organize their escape from the city. The plan depends on his knowledge of secret passages, tunnels and back roads, and on the ability and loyalty of the inner circle and their associates and double agents throughout Rome, all working under an immediate threat of torture, death and retaliation. There are near misses, scenes of intense physical suffering and increasing danger, especially as we see scenes of Hauptmann’s evening. So far, so much fun, but O’Connor rejects voyeurism or tillation. Violence is indirectly conveyed in the destruction of a beautiful piano, the appearance of full teeth.

This story also has other work and wider interests. It’s a choral book in two ways: the group comes together as a choir and practices chamber music to provide musical cover for whispered intentions and conversations, and the book’s structure uses the idea to sing a part, each character has a voice and a song. , more general than parts. O’Connor plays with the possibilities of multiple reporters, and considers quantity, reliability and the historical record: is a collection of witnesses more accurate than a single reporter? With the Irish priest of Vatican City at the center of the book, there are also persistent questions about the concept and behavior of neutrality, especially for the church. Hugo remembers his shameful folly in seeing “all political systems are more or less the same… He learns from the Roman government that “neutrality is the most extreme of all: without it, there is no bullying can succeed”. So, like other fictional priests before him – Graham Greene comes to mind, but TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is also mentioned – O’Flaherty chooses between his duty to obey and his conscience , every hour of the day and up. until the end, where the final twist is satisfactorily theological.

My Father’s House is published by Harvill Secker (£20). To support Guardian and Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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