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Tale lodged in Scotland’s faith and soccer divide

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

BE NEAR ME

By Andrew O'Hagan

Harcourt, $24, 305 pages

REVIEWED BY SUDIP BOSE

There is an unspoken rule that a foreigner ought to heed if he happens to be traveling to Glasgow: Do not ask a local what his football (we call it soccer in America) team is. The two principal clubs in that city, the ones that attract the largest, arguably the most passionate, groups of fans in Scotland, are Rangers and Celtic. You don't ask a Glaswegian which club he supports, because you would really be asking him, wittingly or not, what his religion is — Rangers fans are Protestant, Celtic fans Catholic.

And in the world of soccer, Scotland has imported its own version of Northern Ireland's Troubles. Nasty sectarian chanting is a given, violence between fans common. God help you if you wear the green and white near Ibrox Stadium, the home of Rangers, or if you're wearing blue near Celtic Park.

Any football fan knows all of this. But so, too, I would guess, does any Scotsman. So imagine, then, a priest — half English, half Scottish — walking down the street of a predominantly Protestant town in southwestern Scotland, a working-class town with high unemployment and "a suspicion of strangers." He is the new parish priest, freshly relocated from England, and as he passes a menacing group of men, one of whom wears a Rangers shirt, he has the temerity to smile and wave in their direction.

They are Protestants, those men, and not surprisingly, they snarl at him, hurl abuse at him. He is lucky they do not come after him. And yet, the priest, Father David Anderton, is naive enough to admit surprise at his treatment: "No one had ever spoken to me like that before: a priest gets used to being respected and sometimes pitied, but never in my life had anyone made me feel so vulnerable and so disliked."

Father David is the narrator of Andrew O'Hagan's new novel — a gorgeous, intelligent book, and one of the most important works of fiction I have read in years. The priest's naivete is startling, but it goes far in explaining both the difficulties he faces in the rough Ayrshire town of Dalgarnock as well as his tragic fall.

Father David is an Oxford-educated aesthete, with an ear for Chopin, a love of wine (one bottle reminds him of "the taste of Easter and crushed flowers") and a continental sensibility that is revealed in his frequent use of French phrases. In other words, he is wholly out of place in the shabby, blighted town that is his new home.

During a dinner party that goes terribly wrong, for example, Father David decides that the French and English cheeses he has chosen are "too recherche for its waiting audience, so [he takes] the stranger things away . . . leaving among the Muscat grapes a clump of cheddars that reeked of the Western Isles." The full intensity of his disdain resonates in those marvelously chosen words, "clump" and "reeked."

Unable to view his environs through anything but self-absorbed eyes, Mr. O'Hagan's protagonist spends his time with half a mind on an idyllic, romantic past that may never have existed. The actual picture of Dalgarnock is industrial and bleak: "An empty explosives factory marks the skyline . . . but the better part of the town seems to be given over to black and white council houses with windows the size of bibles. Behind the houses there are shops and schools and a wasteland of gorse crowding yellow to the sea."

For Father David, however, Scotland exists only as a place of the imagination, as a land of "bogs and glens and open fields . . . where history occurred and ruined cottages still stood to account in a smirr of rain."

Ever condescending — without realizing he is behaving thus — and unable to understand the people to whom he is meant to minister, Father David longs for an earlier age, a time when, he imagines, the working class lived a simple, romanticized life. "The working class was another thing back then," he believes. "They had a culture. They didn't have their gold chains or their cable television; they had their work, their interests, their families and no very obvious sense of spite or entitlement." How sharp is the difference between the reality in which he is thrust and his narrow-angled perception of it.

Given all of this, we can expect trouble to develop when Father David becomes friendly with two teenagers, Mark and Lisa. At first it's hard to understand just how such a friendship could flourish. After all, Father David listens to the English composer Frederick Delius. Mark and Lisa come from the culture of the council estate (think working-class slum). They listen to American pop, imitate gangsters, imagine themselves to be actors in a music video and indulge in drugs and petty crime. They are vicious, they are cruel, they are sexually forward. And yet, in their presence Father David comes to feel very much alive.

What is it about Mark and Lisa that appeals to Father David? Mr. O'Hagan suggests a possibility early on, when describing a class on world religions taught by Father David and attended by the teenagers. In that passage, Father David notices several of the children "chew[ing] the frayed ends of their sweaters in the style of caged animals attempting to escape their own quarters."

That is a telling metaphor. For isn't the condition of being caged something Father David well understands? His instinct toward physical, romantic love is like an animalistic force within him, a force that must be suppressed by the restraints of the collar. In these children he comes to see a reflection not only of his own inner conflicts, but also of his history of nostalgia and loss.

The priest's attraction to Mark and Lisa becomes clearer when we realize that he is nothing more, in many ways, than an innocent, a child, even. "One never buys a house or pays school fees," he says, characterizing his life in the clergy. "One sleeps in a single bed. One lives like an orphan in a beautiful paternalistic dream. As a priest one may never grow up." Those four sentences, deceptively simple, contain the essence of Father David's deeply flawed character. They also constitute a dangerous confession, for they seem like a justification for the criminal act that takes place later in the novel.

"Be Near Me" is subtle, morally complex and politically current. And if it is primarily about the fall of a man entrusted with the spiritual lives of an increasingly faithless people, it is also a portrait of loneliness — the title is itself a plea for companionship — and fitting in, of how belief and prejudice can shape a community (blind adherence to one's football club is, in Mr. O'Hagan's novel, a metaphor for a much deeper form of tribalism).

It is also a disturbing vision of an unapologetic mind, one that uses the romances of the past to justify the crimes of the present. In this way, Mr. O'Hagan has written a work that is eminently contemporary, heartbreaking, unforgettable.

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.