Saturday 30 July 2016

Nikolai The Penitent: A Novel of the Brotherhood of the Cross by Mark Carver

Nikolai The Penitent: A Novel of the Brotherhood of the Cross


The Black Death ravages 14th century Europe. Kingdoms crumble, cities fall, family members abandon one another. God has forsaken His children and now chaos reigns.

A young man who has lost everything is swept up in the turmoil and finds his calling in the Brotherhood of the Cross - groups of pious men and women who viciously whip themselves as they parade through the streets of sinful cities, hoping their sacrifice will atone for the iniquities of the people. As the scars grow on Nikolai's back, he purges himself of lust, fear, and doubt, but the price he pays will threaten his very soul.

The Guru's Review: 

I looked forward to this novel when Mark Carver announced it earlier this year. Even at that stage its premise intrigued me. I remember in secondary school how fascinated I was while learning about the Black Death (Bubonic Plaque). Even the history book that we studied from brought to life this period of dark history and portrayed the devastation and decimation of the human population as it spread over Europe. It was this vivid recording that grew my fascination for this period. 

Well, I can say that Mark Carver has brought to life in a much more dramatic and a very rich way the life of this period. Through the eyes of Nikolai Solberg in the fall of 1333 A. D, the reader experiences life in his village, and the mental imagery of this is very powerful. I found myself there, and was not aware of my surroundings, but very much aware of Nikolai's.

I found the section of this novel that described Nikolai's life from 5 years of age to age 20  almost a novella on its own, and it serves well to lay some solid foundation for the rest of the novel. It was this structure and development of the setting, that not only shows Nikolai finding his vocation in life, albeit a dark, extreme, almost mystical one, but also gives the reader a first hand experience of what the Plague was like and how it decimated his community, destroyed some families, strengthen others and increased the fear and anxiety overall. Carver successfully portrays, how this pandemic brought some to embrace the spiritual side in a negative doomsday style attitude, with even the Catholic church shunning their communities and blaming them for this scourge while doing nothing to help them except cloister themselves in their monasteries and cathedrals to avoid contracting this disease. 

For Nikolai, it sparked a quest to better himself and overcome his sinful nature. Carver portrays this well through an example of sexual desire that awakens in him at his age of 20 where he succumbs to this desire and fornicates with the only girl that he has become attracted to. Here Carver shows the depth of Nikolai's determination in his quest by describing in a little graphical detail this sex act.  I questioned the author about this in my interview with him,
Peter: What sort of criticism or feedback are you expecting from the sex scene you have included? I did not consider it too graphic and I can see why you included it as you have, to show the intense struggle of sexual temptation when one believes that any sexual activity outside marriage is spiritual impurity (sin) and therefore not receive the favour of God or freedom from this plague. Do you think you could have achieved the same effect or outcome without the graphics of this scene?

Mark: I expect some people to be critical, and I definitely wrestled with this scene and how much to describe, but because it is such a crucial scene in the story, I didn't want to rush through it. Hopefully it won't be an issue with too many people.
By showing some graphic and describing Nikolai's panic, remorse and shame during and after the act, Carver successfully shows how the effect of his sin deeply affects him leading him to accept a mission to help break the curse of this plague and in the process lead him to a level of righteousness and favour of God.

I can see that some Christians are going to be critical of Mark for including the topic fornication, let alone including some graphics as well. The debate about the merits of any Christian author doing this will not end until the return of Christ Himself. It is the hottest potato of an issue in Christianity and specifically Christian fiction. All I can say is that Carver has depicted this to the degree that it does not detract from any part of the story or stand out like a sore thumb, derailing the plot, but becomes an essential part of Nikolai's motive to overcome his sinful nature. I would expect that most people would agree that it is not included for the sake of including a sex scene, to glorify fornication or to appeal to an audience that expects sex in the novels they read. As Carver states, it is a crucial scene to the story relating to Nikolai's quest.

I found this novel to be one that is unique, different, dark, brutal, gritty and disturbing. This mainly applies to the second part of the novel that describes Nikolai's time in the Brotherhood of the Cross. It is here that I found it hard to read, as the flagellation routine of the members of the Brotherhood, especially of Nikolai, and the effect on them physically and mentally, is the brutal, gritty and disturbing part of this section. There were many times where I nearly gave up reading. Some of the flagellation and the gruesome descriptions of what Nikolai experiences made me angry, frustration and despairing! I had similar reaction to the whipping of Jesus in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. I can fully understand Carver feeling nauseated as he wrote these accounts as he stated in my interview. It is definitely not for the faint hearted.  

In my occupation as a Registered Nurse, I found some of the effects of the flagellation and the malnutrition that Nikolai and the members of Brotherhood a bit too far fetched. I based this on the following from my interview with Mark,
Peter: You have Nikolai flagellating himself from early morning to dusk most days describing a lot of blood loss from Nikolai's body on a daily basis. Based on the fact that the total blood volume for an average 70 kg human (150 pounds) is approximately 5.5 liters (or a little more than 5.5 quarts, (this can vary depending on various factors) in their blood, Nikolai would have suffered from chronic anaemia and its associated serious health problems and together with the lack of food that you have portrayed, he (and his members of the Brotherhood) would have been malnourished as well, which also has serious health issues. From my Nursing background I found the description of this chronic blood loss and malnourishment just a little hard to believe or have much credibility.
Did you include the physical/medical side of the effects of flagellation (such as I have mentioned here) on the human body in your research? I ask this as I am sure many readers might come to this conclusion as well.
Mark: I did consider this, but I didn't want to spend too much time on the medical minutae of the story because that would drag it down. I do describe the incredible fatigue suffered by the flagellants, but I also hint at supernatural sustenance that allows Nikolai in particular to endure more than would seem humanly possible.
This is one reason I interviewed Carver, there were so many controversial and unique elements/issues in a novel like this that I needed to know what made this author write this novel and more of what went into constructing it. It has been well worth reading this novel, and especially interviewing him. I think readers would agree that he has wielded his research well into the construction of this novel in reproducing the essence of this dark period in history.

I consider it would be a minority of readers who would have come across a novel of this type. I find it a daring move on Carver's part. Many authors, including Christian ones, would pass on a topic like this as too hard or too controversial and I can imagine even damaging to their reputation as an author.

One other aspect of this novel that I feel Carver has depicted well is the ignorance of the spiritual in this era. I covered this in my interview again, focusing on the subtitle of the novel,
Peter: The subtitle of this novel is “Salvation must be paid in blood”. The Bible states that this was achieved by Jesus' death on the Cross, but your research, as portrayed by this flagellation practice of the members of the Brotherhood of the Cross was a common event. Was the truth of salvation not taught in the Church in the 1300s? I ask this as I believe that the majority of Christians would not know if this was or was not taught in this era unless they have studied Church/bible history formally or informally. Were you surprised at this as well?
Mark: The book takes place in the Dark Ages, and most people were spiritually ignorant beyond what the church taught them. The church in this story is very "Catholic" in that works are required for salvation, more than just faith in Christ and His death and resurrection. Monetary penance, pilgrimages, and self-abuse were lauded by the church as means to achieve salvation, and the church in those days wanted to maintain power over the people as much as possible, and these "extras" were an easy way to do this.
I found that Carver handled the antisemitism very well in this novel and depicted a realistic attitude of the times as displayed through Nikolai, especially seeing that very few of the Jewish population in these European countries were affected by the Plague. He has been very respectful to them and depicted them realistically and I appreciate that in a novel like this. I do understand from reading this part of the novel why he needed to include a Preface on this issue. 

The only other aspect that I did not like was the ending. After all Nikolai went through and how he came to the end of himself and his final decision at the end, I felt that it ended far too quickly and I was left hanging expecting more to close off this tale. After the emotional ride that Carver had put me through, I needed some closure! 

I have read some of Carver's books and love what I read. This novel reveals another versatile side of him and shows that he has reached a level of expertise and maturity as an author that he can write about difficult subject matter and make it unique, successful and worthwhile. 

Strongly Recommended. (4/5 Stars)

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