By Wendel Messer
Gravehurst, Ontario: Breller Books, 2009
ISBN # 978-687-8149
285 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2010

I’m finding this to be a difficult book to write about. First of all, I very much enjoyed reading it, but I’m not too sure that I fully understood it, nor that I’m convinced it makes a great deal of sense. I found parts delightful, other parts silly, belabored, even arrogant, certainly self-indulgent. Nonetheless, it was challenging and I’m quite happy I read it.

The novel is set about two centuries into the future. A street fellow turns up as a street beggar in Toronto who speaks only Latin, and not just any Latin, but a very sophisticated ancient Roman Latin, not the Church Latin of later centuries. Verus is his name, but it turns out he is actually . . . well, no need to reveal important plot clues. Verus, as with the luck we tend to find only in novels, meets a former high school Latin teacher, and soon his strange ability, and claims are discovered and his even more surprising claim to actually be an ancient Roman is made known to the world media.

Verus is deeply under the influence of Marcus Aurelius’s MEDITATIONS and Aurelius’s view of human existence. There are long passages from the MEDITATIONS in the novel, and the reader is given a light gist of stoic theory.

At the same time, Rome is now the center of Europe, and the Catholic Church is still a very dominant factor in the world. There is a key character, a Catholic monk, Gregory O’Riley, who is also a master Latinist and indispensable to the Vatican. In fact, it is his indispensability that keeps him there since he is actually a rather vocal atheist who doesn’t mind denouncing religion and the church at every opportunity.

Gregory is also the head of a European Union scientific group which is about to change the very nature of human being, by merging human minds with “helots,” extremely intelligent human-like robots. Ah it all gets very complex.

The key thing for Gregory is that these helots, above all else, will reject religion, which he regards as the bane of human existence, the most dangerous evil on earth. A typical quip from Gregory: “… man’s most evil and persistent delusion – religion” This seems to be a novel where one has a hard time separating the main character from the author, and when Gregory is reflecting and planning and even ranting, this reader kept picturing the author as much as Gregory.

This new being, the merger of the helots with human minds is to be called “homo mirabilis.” However, there are key disagreements as to whether the homo mirabilis will be given the feelings and emotions of humans. Gregory is worried that if they are they may once again create the horrors of religions. On the other hand, if they do not have the feelings and emotions of humans, it is rather unknown as to what these pure rational beings would be like and what sort of world they would create.

Gregory is the great champion of the “homo mirabilis” and the end of religion. He works hard to make the case, and several of the other characters, including the pope, the high school teacher and Verus seem to back him. I was never convinced. Like Gregory, I have no personal use for religion and see much that is negative in it. I don’t practice any religion and haven’t for 50 years. Yet I see good in religion too, and have respect for many who are religious and seem to me to lead good lives, as good as any I know in the non-religious world, including myself.

Gregory and other characters seem to just identify religion as the primary cause of human evil. I think I see wealth and power as a greater source, and I do see many of the rich and powerful in religion as often causes of great world mischief. But the simple believers, who take in a message that is often humane, and try to live it out . . . well, I find myself with respect for that mode of being. Like the ancients, and especially the Greeks, I do lean toward Socrate's claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but that’s more about seeking a higher life rather than just avoiding evil.

Along the way in the novel there were a number of moments which I especially enjoyed.

The characters of Verus and Gregory seem to merge with the author’s great love of Roman stoicism, especially as presented by Marcus Aurelius in his MEDITATIONS. While I’m sure I studied stoicism to some light manner in my grad school days, I didn’t remember much about it, and did so thoroughly enjoy the views presented in the novel that I ordered a copy of Aurelius’ book and intend to read it very soon. I found some great similarities with my own preferred theory of human existence, Existentialism. Certainly the passion of us Existentialists is quite different from the stoics, but the dedication to the creation of the meaning of human existence by us humans rather than by transcendental sources is an important similarity.

I found one most interesting passages was expressed by the former high school Latin teacher on the question of the meaning of human existence and SOURCE of meaning:

“Man is capable of giving himself purpose,” I can’t resist saying.

“That there may be a purpose to the universe is not hard to believe, even if we don’t really know that, and can’t prove it, because it’s way beyond us. But there is a great gap in logic between a purposeful universe and assuming some kind of god, as we understand the term. There is a further great gap in logic if we believe that said deity takes a personal interest in us. And there are gaps as big as light years if we claim to know the deity’s purpose, to say nothing of assuming some supposed plan for humanity. Logic is always short-circuited by religion.”

“Faith has nothing to do with your logic,” says Jancie curtly.

“No sweetheart, it doesn’t.”

Another passage I especially liked had to do with a gripe I also have about our time, the dumbing down of language and grammar. Verus and Joe, the high school teacher are talking about Verus making a career in writing. The conversation was a delight to me:

Verus considers a moment, “I could earn my keep,” he says. “If it could be done in some way conformable to my principles. And f I can still do what I am here to do ... whatever that may be.

“Yes, right. And you would be in control, too, They wouldn’t get away with dumbing down your message:”

As Verus looks perplexed I explain to him. “Your book’s been rediscovered as a self-help. “They’re trying to make it accessible to every bonehead, in spite of the fact that when you get down to a certain intellectual level, you can practically rule out self-help as a method of salvation. You can rule out salvation by any means:”

“I suppose that is true,” says Verus.

“You bet it is. The latest rip-off of your great work is written at about a grade eight level, You see, Verus, they stopped teaching English grammar years ago, and now no one knows bug squat about how words work with each another. That’s why things have to dumbed down. They don’t know that grammar is the logic of speech. nor that without logic you can’t think beyond a very basic level.”

Lastly, I did have a great laugh at the line where Gregory is figuring out in what order would humans be made “homo mirabilis.” Of course he and his colleagues are first, but he definitely knows who will be last: “politicians, lawyers, criminals, pop singers, creationists.” I haven’t figured out how my own list would read, but it is an instructive exercise, I’m fairly sure politicians and pop singers would be on my list, but I’m not sure about the others. I’m a bit afraid to do it.

I recommend the book. It’s not especially great, nor especially profound and, I think, not nearly as funny as the author would have hoped, but it is very different and often fun. Some of the philosophical discussions are quite interesting, and the attack on religion, while seemingly to me exceptionally harsh, is interesting to counter as one reads. As in any satire one has to recognize some sources that are being satirized, and I see the plot lines of Dan Brown as up for ridicule, especially in the very end of the novel.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett