No Other Life

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337

In NO OTHER LIFE, his eighteenth novel, Brian Moore again reveals his penchant for plots which unobtrusively combine thriller elements with more profound moral and religious questions. Set on the imaginary Caribbean island of Ganae, the novel tells of a rural scholarship boy, Jean-Paul Cantave, or Jeannot, as he is called throughout. Rescued from a life of penury and oppression, he is educated for the priesthood and eventually becomes president of Ganae. The story of Jeannot is told by his mentor, a French Canadian missionary, Father Michel.

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It is typical of Moore’s economical method that the use of the hero’s nickname serves as an expression both of the intimacy between Father Michel and his former pupil and of Jeannot’s links with the people whose ruler he becomes. The name becomes a constant reminder of the various conflicts which the priest and president must face: between the public man and the private one, between the political activist and the man of peace, and between the man of the people and the just ruler. Jeannot’s negotiation of these conflicts at once makes him a memorable character and the leader of a vulnerable regime.

The similarity of Ganae to Haiti, in language, terrain, and recent political turbulence reinforces the reader’s appreciation of Jeannot’s essentially Christian striving for peace and justice. Moore’s deft exploration of whether Jeannot’s obligations are to man or to God, hinted at in the novel’s title, supplements the novel’s action with a sense of the enigmatic nature of purpose and duty.

Sources for Further Study

Books in Canada. XXII, May, 1993, p.44.

Chicago Tribune. September 19, 1993, XIV, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 14, 1993, p.15.

Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.154.

London Review of Books. XV, April 8, 1993, p.15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 19, 1993, p.3.

New Statesman and Society. VI, February 19, 1993, p.41.

The New York Review of Books. XL, October 21, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 12, 1993, p.1

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 21, 1993, p.82.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 19, 1993, p.22.

No Other Life

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1972

In No Other Life, his eighteenth novel, Brian Moore continues his treatment of themes and contexts first introduced in The Color of Blood (1987) and revisited in Lies of Silence (1990). Readers familiar with Moore’s work will not find the themes of these works unfamiliar. Their preoccupation with the substance and adequacy of their protagonists’ inner life, particularly at periods of development or transition, has been a mainstay of this author’s fiction since the beginning of his career. The difference in his later work is the translation of these preoccupations into unfamiliar, international contexts. In both The Color of Blood and No Other Life Moore invents countries for whose characteristics he draws freely on contemporary news stories. The national setting of The Color of Blood was modeled on the Poland of the early 1980’s. A Caribbean island named Ganae, with a distinctive Francophone language and culture and with a close resemblance to Haiti, provides the backdrop for Moore’s concerns in No Other Life. It may be thought that by setting Lies of Silence in his native Northern Ireland Moore was not pursuing the emphases introduced in The Color of Blood. The Belfast of Lies of Silence, however, proved to be as alien as any context the author could invent. The reversal of readers’ expectations in this depiction of Belfast effectively underscored Moore’s lack of interest in context for its own sake and his preference for probing the elusive human elements that make up his protagonists.

These elements are emotional and psychological in origin. Their identity economically reveals the protagonists’ common humanity. These characters’ hopes, fears, vanity, and courage form the centers of narrative interest and thereby attract the reader’s attention to such matters as the nature of the moral life and the negotiability of virtue under contemporary historical conditions. The development of Moore’s imaginative commitment to such weighty concerns has meant that his work has been compared with increasing frequency with that of Graham Greene. One of the hallmarks of Moore’s approach to his material, however, is the ease and deftness with which the abstractions are woven into the action. The result is a curious hybrid that might be labeled the metaphysical thriller.

The deftness of Moore’s narrative touch in No Other Life and the rapid development of the career of his protagonist, Father Jean-Paul Cantave, known to all by the loving diminutive “Jeannot,” should not be allowed to disguise the fact that this is the broadest canvas that the author has attempted to paint. By locating the novel on an island that resembles Haiti not only in its linguistic and cultural makeup but also in its recent political history, Moore immediately introduces issues of race and class. Within the society of Ganae, race is class, a social circumstance from which the pretext of many of the ostensible conflicts arises. The oppressive differentiation of the island’s mulatto population from their black fellow citizens is one of the primary political motives for Jeannot’s revolutionary activities. The mulattos identify themselves in terms of metropolitan manners and economic self- aggrandizement. As a result, the black population is identified with rural Ganae, with urban poverty, and with a simple belief that Jeannot is their messiah. The faith that the black Ganaeans who constitute the majority population have in the possibility of deliverance from their state of economic and social vulnerability is spontaneous and direct, in contrast not only with the distorted political intelligence of the ruling clique but also with the complex institutional outlook of the island’s Catholic hierarchy.

These racial and class concerns also possess a more than local relevance. The ruling class’s interests are allied with a variety of international power-bases, including those of American investment, Parisian cultural styles, numbered Swiss bank accounts, and drug-smuggling. In keeping with the novel’s skeletal approach, none of the political elite’s international affiliations are developed. On the other hand, it is clear from the limited encounters that are provided with members of the elite that the affiliations in question constitute a network whose ultimate effect is the continued oppression and exploitation of the Ganean people. This effect is what Jeannot is dedicated to eliminating.

It may be noted in passing that although Ganae is unmistakably based on Haiti, there is no mention of religions other than Catholicism. This focus is partly the result of the fact that the narrative has been entrusted to a Catholic priest, Father Paul Michel. It was he who brought Jeannot from his impoverished rural home to boarding school in the capital, thereby unknowingly setting him on a collision course with his country’s destiny. Yet the focus on Catholicism has more than thematic significance. Father Michel is a French-Canadian from a small town in northern Quebec. This alternative Francophone presence in the novel supplies an almost imperceptible counterweight to Jeannot’s experience. The importance of this emphasis is highlighted not in terms of the novel’s political concerns, however, but in terms of its spiritual preoccupations.

Part of the enigmatic coexistence of spirit with matter in No Other Life comes to the fore in one of the interruptions of Jeannot’s history that Father Michel feels obliged to record. This interruption finds him summoned back to Quebec, where his mother is on her deathbed. The result of the disturbing encounter between mother and son is crystallized in the phrase that gives the novel its title. The phrase overshadows the rest of the novel, particularly Michel’s increased engagement with Jeannot’s cause follow-mg his mother’s death. The phrase reflects not only what Michel finds to be his mother’s shocking agnosticism but also the difficulties in either justifying or renouncing Jeannot’s revolutionary conduct. These difficulties are not only experienced by Jeannot and Michel, who articulate them in terms of the conflicts they feel between duty and responsibility, faith and good works, human injustice and God’s mercy. They are also the source of problems within the Catholic Church itself at the highest levels. Ultimately, nobody knows what the appropriate course of action might be, given the moral squalor of Ganaean public life. Such ignorance, however, does not mean that nothing can, or should, be done about that squalor.

Jeannot is at the center of the various conflicts. As a black native of Ganae, he is at odds with the country’s rulers even before he is able to articulate what those odds are. Through his education, and the development in both institutional affiliation and self-awareness that his schooling encourages, he replicates in his own history the troublesome divisions of Ganaean society. His efforts to do something about conditions in his country brings him into conflict with both the civil and the spiritual powers. One of the keenest expressions of Jeannot’s problems is his fear that efforts to assume the full burden of his moral awareness by means of a political career will inevitably result in the loss of the priesthood, given Rome’s policy that church and state be separate. This policy derives from the principle that, ultimately, the church must be concerned with the preservation of its integrity and the responsibility to safeguard the spiritual well-being of its members. Readers familiar with contemporary Haitian history will recognize certain resemblances between Jeannot’s circumstances and the effects of his campaign for economic and social justice and the career of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the exiled president of Haiti and a former priest. Jeannot’s career, however, does not end in exile.

Radical as Jeannot is, and committed as he may be to principles that he perceives as enshrining no more than the Christian message of charity, there is also an element of luck in the evolution of his career. The civic unrest that is fomented by his preaching and example as a young priest in an inner-city parish coincides with the death of Ganae’s incumbent president, Doumergue-a figure whose wealth, security forces, and despotic power suggest his origins in former president Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier of Haiti. Doumergue is the only character in No Other Life with whom acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), of which he dies, is associated. Doumergue’s death leaves a power vacuum that Jeannot is reluctant to fill, for both clerical and secular reasons. Nevertheless, Jeannot has no choice, unless he wishes Ganae to fall into complete anarchy.

The force of circumstances that impel Jeannot along his particular course, and the fact that in order to articulate the sincerity of his principles he has to live them out regardless of the consequences, is less a commentary on the nature of public responsibility and the specific needs of the Ganaean body politic than it is an extended gloss on the novel’s title. There is no other life than that of one’s inner convictions, one’s own beliefs. These beliefs may be assimilated into a larger belief system, such as a religion or an ideology. At crucial points, however, the singularity of the individual’s vision will sharply depart from collective, institutional wisdom. Such a perspective on Jeannot is established very effectively by having Father Michel tell the story.

As a result of the episode at his mother’s deathbed, but also by virtue of his status as a missionary as well as his especially paternal relationship with his beloved Jeannot, Father Michel finds faith problematic. Not for him the simple rhetoric of Jeannot’s sermons, whose incantatory power is acknowledged in the quasi-verse in which they are written. On the contrary, Michel constantly attempts to reconcile Jeannot’s actions to known prescriptions of permissible action. The extraordinary courage and dignity that Jeannot displays at all times are entirely admirable in Father Michel’s eyes, but he continues to worry whether the circumstances that evoke such qualities are appropriate. In contrast, Jeannot, though not free from some of the same spiritual concerns, rises above them. For him, the only question is one of necessity. Jeannot is inspired by the plight of his own people.

As an outsider, Father Michel acknowledges the mortal lot of Ganae’s poor but is unable to identify with it. Jeannot initially comes to Father Michel through an extension of a scholarship program. This program has its origins in Ganaean political considerations. In a sense, Jeannot accepts too literally the moral ethos of his scholarship education. As a means of underlining Father Michel’s uncertain engagement with Jeannot’s career, his narrative dwells with far greater explicitness on the swift current of action that marks Jeannot’s impact on public life than on an examination of the principles upon which those actions are based. This emphasis, in turn, renders moot questions of motive, desire, impetus, and, most of all, faith.

Yet it seems that it is by virtue of his inferiority to Jeannot that Father Michel survives. Although he is taken into custody with Jeannot during a counterrevolutionary coup, no real harm comes to him. He continues obediently doing the work of his religious order. Jeannot, on the other hand, vanishes, leaving behind the rehabilitated and entrenched elite, a defeated and brutalized citizenry whose attempts at people power proved to be uncoordinated and undisciplined. He also leaves behind, however, a vivid expression of the potentiality of spirit, whose insistent energy and enigmatic manifestations are vividly brought into focus in this understated but immensely readable novel.

Sources for Further Study

Books in Canada. XXII, May, 1993, p.44.

Chicago Tribune. September 19, 1993, XIV, p.6.

The Christian Science Monitor. December 14, 1993, p.15.

Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.154.

London Review of Books. XV, April 8, 1993, p.15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 19, 1993, p.3.

New Statesman and Society. VI, February 19, 1993, p.41.

The New York Review of Books. XL, October 21, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 12, 1993, p.1

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 21, 1993, p.82.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 19, 1993, p.22.

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