William Peter Blatty’s The Redemption (2010), also known as Dimitar, is essentially an exploration of faith wrapped up in a mystery story. It begins in Albania in the 1970s with the story of a mysterious stranger being held by state security. This stranger, The Prisoner, is questioned under various forms of torture while his story, unveiled by The Interrogator – who turns out to be a high-ranking official named Vlora – is slowly revealed.
I say revealed, but even by the end of the first act there remains a massive shroud of mystery, and it is this mystery that keeps the reader gripped.
If you’re aware of any of Blatty’s work, from The Exorcist to Legion to The Ninth Configuration, than you’re aware that religion is a driving theme in his stories, and The Redemption is no exception. From the start there are obvious correlations drawn between The Prisoner and a Christ-like figure.
The Prisoner radiated mystery. After seven days of torture he had yet to utter a word. Silent, his head bowed down, hands manacled, he stood beneath the blinding grip of the spotlight in the middle of the room like a barrier to comfort.
This is the beginning of a strong first act; The Prisoner is an enigma that the reader is as eager to learn more about as The Interrogator. Though, if this reviewer is honest, I’m not sure anything that was eventually revealed was particularly surprising, at least in respect of The Prisoner.
The story begins to center itself around The Interrogator, Vlora, revealing his motives and family life; the power and respect this man is granted in Communist Albania, something his wife recognizes: “She knew that everybody recognized her husband and dreaded him, a fact known to every Albanian but him.” We begin to feel his frustration with the mystery of The Prisoner, understanding that, in his eyes, the torture, cruelty and tricks he dispels are necessary agents to discover the truth – in the case of The Prisoner – and to repel religion, in the case of Albania’s dissolution of the churches.
In a country where Priests are locked up, Vlora is a steadfast figurehead, respected by the community. The Prisoner’s stoicism is a direct threat to this, and coupled with the increasingly religious angle of this Prisoner’s demeanor and story, we get to experience the growing unease within Vlora, and the lengths he is willing to go to to uncover the truth.
Blatty’s description of this time and country are very evocative, though obviously slanted towards revealing how terrible it was to live through.
The doctor’s gaze flicked up, seeing only a tower and a usual grayness, for he was forced to look out through a film of dust that coated his corneas, a chronic and remarkable affliction diagnosed as “disorder of the soul” that had started on the day he stopped believing that the universe had any meaning.
One of the reasons I have enjoyed reading Blatty’s work in the past has been his writing style; such as the near-irreverence, and somewhat lightheartedness of ‘disorder of the soul’. Though here it is probably less off-hand than other non-religious remarks.
His style is often one that pops off on momentary tangents, making his dialogue in particular very recognizably ‘Blatty’: “We want to have a new relationship with you,” Vlora tells The Prisoner. “The old one, you’ll admit, was unrewarding. Incidentally, try an apricot. They’re in season.”
Whenever I read sentences like these, it’s near impossible for me not to imagine Father Damien Karras from The Exorcist, or Lieutenant Kinderman from The Exorcist III, quipping the lines out in their fast, irreverent style. Incidentally, I would recommend The Exorcist III if you have not seen it already – ignore the second! For some people, the repetition of this device may become exhaustive, but personally I enjoy them, and they’re not too frequent. I perhaps counted ten to twelve incidentally-s!
Incidentally, did I tell you about the screenplay I’m writing?
quote from The Exorcist
From the first act we now move our attention to Jerusalem a year later, being introduced to a new set of characters. Quite a lot of time was spent getting to know Vlora and Albania, so the sudden switch was quite disorienting, and for quite a few pages beyond. This wasn’t helped by the insertion here and there of letters from someone called Paul, to someone called Jean. Though new cast members are passively mentioned in these letters, their mystery is a bit jarring.
The second and third acts follow a small cast of characters: Meral, a detective, and Mayo, a doctor; and to a lesser extent the nurse, Samia, and hospital orderly, Wilson. Other characters too weave in and out of a story that revolves around the mystery of vanishing car crash victim, and the high-profile murder of a cancer-ridden and burned man found on the Tomb of Christ. Who were these people, and what links them?
After the relative roller-coaster ride of the first act, it takes a while for the new characters and location to bed in. The story slows down considerably and becomes lengthier, philosophical expositions; from the mysterious letter excerpts to Blatty’s trademark dream sequences.
We follow Mayo around on his rounds, exploring the hospital, mysterious ghostly sightings, and unexplained ‘miracles’, discovering he’s in a bit of a rut – an air of melancholy permeates through here.
Mayo’s mood had again turned sober, his bright shield of humor now too heavy to lift into place.Wilson stood studying him for a moment, and then mutely turned away and left.
There’s also a fair amount of religious exposition that is introduced here, as the characters muse the big meanings of life. Nothing feels heavy-handed – it is all naturally done through the characters and the location, and is an increasingly integral part of the unfolding story. While it drags the story to begin with, once the characters have been set the story begins to pick up pace again, dropping mysteries like dollops of mortar awaiting the bricks to make the wall whole.
Most of these lascivious tidbits of mystery come by way of the cliched ‘chapter’ cliffhanger, which does become slightly tedious, and just isn’t really necessary in a book that is well written, and with a story that should unfold itself naturally. Nevertheless, Blatty seems fit to portent future mysteries, and it jars because it is an obvious authorial interruption of the natural flow of things.
MERAL: Can you tell me what it is?
ZUI: No, not at this time.
MERAL: You don’t know yet?
ZUI: We know, but we can’t quite believe it.
There was no real reason for the chapter to end in this way; and in retrospect is particularly clumsy because it doesn’t quite ring true. Zui is an agent also investigating the events (with Meral reporting back to him and doing all the legwork) but he hints at knowing much more than Meral. If Zui knew as much as he theoretically does already, it almost makes Meral’s purpose redundant, for Zui’s purpose, not the story’s.
The book’s middle section has many of these style hints, which, in a strictly mystery novel may work okay, as it is the writer’s job to intervene and leave breadcrumbs to follow. I’m not sure it works here. As we reach the finale and things begin to come together, I never felt that ‘eureka moment’ of revelation where all the locks fell into place. As each piece was revealed, it didn’t feel as though it was preceded by the necessary tools by which I could have figured it out myself – which is not a crime – but it lacked the satisfaction which a more overtly genre mystery could have given.
Which I guess is the root of any misgivings I had when I finished. While Blatty undoubtedly looks at this piece as a religious work, (“Without a doubt, it’s the best writing I’ve produced. I can’t surpass it. I know that,” he is quoted as saying) and the similarly religious may also do the same; as an atheist I appreciated the story as fictional entertainment (which veered towards a mystery). Much of it I could not relate to, but I appreciated the story and lore involved, and it’s always interesting to explore new ground. (Incidentally, more of Albania would not have gone a-miss.)
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