In what will hopefully become a recurring feature here at The Dunedin School, we are proud to present the opening of an ongoing dialogue about a single text. For our inaugural Call and Response, we have chosen Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 science fiction novel The Sparrow as our object of discussion. Set in the mid-twenty-first century, The Sparrow recounts the fate of an interstellar mission, led by the Society of Jesus, to a distant planet known as Rakhat. Though thematically a sci-fi novel that explores the classic trope of ‘first contact’, The Sparrow unfolds almost like a detective story, slowly peeling away the layers of rumour and hearsay to arrive, finally, at the horrific truth of why the Jesuit Emilio Sandoz was the only member of his expedition to survive and make the return journey to Earth. WARNING: these posts will contain very significant plot spoilers, so if you’re interested in reading the book (as you should be), read it first, then come back here and see what other readers have made of it. The Dunedin School believes firmly that the analysis of books should never be allowed to impinge on the pure, elemental pleasure of reading them.
Before her deserved success as a novelist, Russell, a convert to Judaism, worked in the academy in the fields of physical and cultural anthropology. Incidentally, as an academic, one of the pleasures of reading The Sparrow comes from watching Russell struggling to break out of the formal strictures of academic writing – in her Acknowledgements, she admits to feeling uneasy ‘without footnotes and a huge bibliography’ – and stretch her legs into prose fiction. To her credit, Russell is largely successfully, though, on an aesthetic front, the novel is at times something of a mixed bag. Some of the dialogue she concocts between her characters, especially when expressing deep, even mawkish affection, is stilted or even flat-out clumsy, due, perhaps, to years spent observing people with a detached intellectual eye (one of the perils of working in the human sciences). Structurally and allegorically, however, Russell rarely puts a foot wrong and the novel’s intricate structure, without which it would lose a good deal of its power, never falters.
The narrative of The Sparrow, Russell’s first novel, is in itself fairly simple. The novel’s structure is considerably more complex; Russell weaves the story of the mission to Rakhat into the story of what happens to Sandoz when he comes back to Earth and faces a Jesuit commission who want to know why the mission ended so disastrously. Not only are the rest of the tight-knit crew of Jesuits, scientists, and friends killed on Rakhat, but the mission’s presence caused the deaths of a number of sentient natives, including at least one child who had been close to the Jesuits. Sandoz’s superiors also want to know why Sandoz was discovered after years of silence working as a prostitute on Rakhat. Finally, they want to know what happened to his hands, which have been mutilated by an operation that removed the flesh and muscles from his palms, leaving him with unnaturally long, skeletal fingers that hang from his arms with a certain perverse grace. For much of its considerable length, The Sparrow operates on an exquisite slow burn that comes to a boil in the final pages, in a series of emotionally potent revelations that reveal the deeply unsettling truth of what happened to Sandoz and his crew, a fate that has a good deal to tell us about colonialism, faith, and Christianity.
Reading the novel allegorically, and science fiction is, as Peter Nicholls has noted, ‘the great modern literature of metaphor’, what The Sparrow is ‘really about’ is European colonialism and the inevitable if unconscious harm that it caused on Earth. It is also no less concerned with grappling honestly with the role of Christian missionaries in the history of colonialism. The novel begins with a very brief Prologue that draws a parallel between the expedition to Rakhat and to the earliest days of European colonialism, in which the then newly-founded Society of Jesus played an important part. The opening words of the novel are telling: ‘It was predictable, in hindsight’. Rakhat civilisation seems eerily familiar, even though it is literal light-years from Earth. It is a tribute to Russell’s intricate and tightly-controlled structure that the similarities become more apparent the more the expedition – and in turn, the reader – learns about the different peoples of Rakhat.
Though it is obvious from the first that the gentle, forest-dwelling Runa, the first alien group that Sandoz’s party encounters, are involved in certain economic activities, the extent of capitalism – or something that looks very much like modern European capitalism – on Rakhat only becomes clear in the closing chapters. The Runa, the reader slowly learns, are the majority population of Rakhat but are under the control of a cultivated species called the Jana’ata, who dwell in cities with a rich, complex culture. It is, in fact, the Jana’ata’s songs, broadcast on radio signals that are picked up by powerful radio telescopes on Earth, that first draw the Jesuits to Rakhat. For all their aesthetic development, the minority Jana’ata rule the Runa with a shocking degree of coercion and violence. The Runa are treated as little more than sympathetic (if intelligent) cattle, despite the fact that they are the engines that make the Jana’ata economy run. The Runa’s reproduction is strictly controlled, to the extent that the Jana’ata even breed the Runa selectively in order to make them more useful as traders and gatherers. As readers, once the humans are discovered by the Jana’ata, our guide into the world of the dominant species is one Supaari VaGayjur, who is a wealthy merchant and trader of scent. As we move from the forests of the Runa into the cities, the allegorical identity with the Jana’ata and European colonialism come into sharp, surprising focus. Reading all of this as an allegory, it is difficult not to see the echoes of scientific Enlightenment culture in Russell’s descriptions: ‘But Jana’ata life was never simple and rarely straightforward. Deep in the Jana’ata soul there was an almost unshakeable convictions that things must be controlled, thought out, done correctly, that there was very little margin for error in life. Tradition was safety; change was danger’. Though hyperbolically amplified in the novel’s allegorical structure, there are also recognisable parallels between the Runa and the economic underclasses which form the majority population of contemporary human life on Earth.
It is to Russell’s credit that she doesn’t condemn the Jana’ata outright and explores the fictional society on its own terms, something which allows her to make some pointed social criticisms. She has Sandoz compare the Jana’ata to human civilisation:
I am not defending them. I am trying to explain to you what happened and why. But it is their society, and the pay their own price for their way of life … There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illnesses do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay, Felipe, and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because the corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!
What is perhaps most intriguing about The Sparrow is that the story of Sandoz – and it really is his story– underlines the problematic connections of Christianity and European expansion during the colonial period. The whole of the colonial project – and thus all of the destruction it caused – would likely have been simply impossible without the funding, the manpower, and the inherently legitimising power of the Christian churches, who were in this period fighting on all fronts (including the colonial) to gain (or re-gain in the Catholic Church’s case) power in European society. The churches, then, are doubtless complicit in the seemingly endless negative consequences that have grown out of the colonial period.
Granted, within the larger cultural and economic movement of colonialism, some of the missionaries, Jesuits and others, who travelled out from Europe in this period were first-rate scholars who added considerably to what was known about Asian cultures in Europe, and did so in an honest, sympathetic, and largely non-violent manner. The Lutheran Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), the first Protestant missionary in India, is a good example of this kind of more ethical missionary; however, he was, sadly, very much in the minority. We can see this tension in the New Zealand context in that there were missionaries involved on both sides of the controversy that surrounded the signing of the still-contentious Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. There were missionaries working on the side of the colonisers who pressured Maori leaders to sign the document; however, there were also those who worked on the side of the Maori and encouraged resistance against the Treaty, which some suspected –with good reason, it turned out – was designed only to give the growing British rule over New Zealand the air of local legitimacy. Russell, through her fictional construct of spaceflight and alien civilisation, asks a compelling question: Can the drive to better the world ad majorem Dei gloriam, no matter how legitimate, ever be separated out from the evils of the colonial enterprise? She also asks, balancing the scales; what price should these missionaries be forced to pay for their complicity?
In the novel, Sandoz comes to pay a great, almost unimaginable price, one that is tied up wholly with his identity as a Jesuit, a priest, and a Christian. Throughout the novel, Russell takes considerable pains to create in Sandoz a central protagonist who is complex and conflicted but in many ways admirable. Sandoz comes from a poor background and becomes both a Jesuit and an accomplished linguist, all the while trying to work out the realities of his own Christianity. When the Aricebo radio telescope in his native Puerto Rico first intercepts the first faint radio transmissions of the Jana’ata songs, Sandoz is instrumental in getting the Jesuit mission off the ground. Sandoz’s motives are profoundly religious – he feels he is being called by God travel to Rakhat – at the same time they are academic and intellectual – as a linguist, he wants to learn more about the songs and those who sang them. On Earth, Sandoz is a tireless champion of the underprivileged and a dedicated worker in the service of the poor the world over. His intentions for the interstellar mission, for the most part, are admirable. For Sandoz, Rakhat is the site for a profound religious awakening, a flowering of the faith that has always troubled him. Landing on Rakhat and for the first time opening the hatch of their landing craft, Sandoz finds himself suffused with the sort of transformative experience of the presence of his God that he has long admired in others. In the Prologue, Russell writes of the intentions behind the expedition: ‘The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm’. Sandoz means no harm, but he nonetheless causes a great deal of it. He also comes in for more than his share of harm as things, after a long, idyllic interlude on Rakhat spent with the Runa, go very wrong very quickly. His friends dead, Sandoz returns after a solitary journey across space a pariah, an enigma with mutilated hands. He arrives home to a world where he is known as a prostitute and a man connected with a number of deaths. He arrives home to find the Society deeply immersed in the massive controversy the mission has caused.
As we learn towards the end of the novel, Sandoz is not a coldblooded killer or a willing merchant of the flesh but is more than anything the victim of profound cultural misunderstandings. In their desire to help the Runa, Sandoz and their crew fundamentally alter a social structure they did not understand until it was far too late for them to reverse the changes they had made in their ignorance. The deaths on Rakhat are the direct result of the violation of the carefully maintained social order. The minority Jana’ata, who are always in fear of a Runa uprising, cannot tolerate this intrusion and respond with violence. Sandoz is eventually taken by Suppari to a compound in the city. It is here that his hands are mutilated in an operation that is designed to make his hands look like the weeping branches of a willow-like tree. A similar operation causes the death of the only other surviving Jesuit in the interest of pure aesthetics and a desire among the Jana’ata to appear prosperous enough not to need something so mundanely useful as hands.
At the nadir of his suffering, alone and profoundly wounded with this alien stigmata, Sandoz is sold by Suppari to what he fist thinks is a sort of zoo. Upon meeting his purchaser, the poet who composed the lovely songs which drew him across the void of space, Sandoz experiences a moment of clarity that justifies in his mind all of the suffering he has endured:
And then, suddenly, everything made sense to him, and the joy of that moment took his breath away. He had been brought here, step by step, to meet this man: Hlavin Kitheri, a poet – perhaps even a prophet – who of all his kind might know the God whom Emilio Sandoz served. It was a moment of redemption so profound he almost wept, ashamed that his faith had been so badly eroded by the inchoate fear and the isolation … This is why I am alive, he told himself, and he thanked God with all his soul for allowing him to be here at this moment, to understand all of this at last.
At this very moment of spiritual realisation, Russell brings everything crashing down on Sandoz; the author of the songs has not bought a display animal, but an unwilling prostitute. That the poet Kitheri himself is the one who first violates Sandoz reveals a design in nature quite different to the one that Sandoz had seen with such joy only seconds before.
Russell gives the reader the irony and the horror of this moment without flinching, taking Sandoz’s suffering and humiliation about as far as it could go: ‘Kitheri, Reshtar of Galatna Palace, the greatest poet of his age, who had ennobled the despised, exalted the ordinary, immortalized the fleeting, a singularity whose artistry was first concentrated and then released, magnified, by the incomparable and unprecedented, inhaled deeply. We shall sing of this for generations, he thought’. New songs are written about the repeated rape of Sandoz, who reveals to his interrogators much later that the songs of the Jana’ata are nothing more than simple (if beautiful) pornography. That Sandoz has struggled successfully until this point in his life with his vow of celibacy adds a final and very severe insult to his forced prostitution. Sandoz is able later to frame his own understanding on very Nietzschean terms, telling his interrogators, ‘Not comedy. Not tragedy … Perhaps farce’? However, this doesn’t soften the blow of what happens to him on Rakhat, about which he says simply: ‘I laid down all my defences. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped’. Tying the title of the book back the Matthew 10:29 (‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it’) brings out the force of Sandoz’s continual suffering, as his God knows about his suffering but chooses to ignore it in silence. In this, there is an almost Job-like character to Sandoz’s story.
In these final revelations, The Sparrow sounds a note very much like that of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1956 Hugo Award-winning short story, ‘The Star’, in which a group of scientists discover that the brightly-flaring star that features in the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth was in reality a supernova that laid to waste an interstellar civilisation that far outstripped anything that humanity has managed to achieve. The narrator of ‘The Star’, a Jesuit priest and scientist not unlike The Sparrow’s Sandoz, finishes his story with a plea that mixes the joy of discovery with a lament that such discovery has little enough to say to the age-old problem of evil: ‘There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?’ In The Sparrow, the question of theodicy, as indicated in the opening sentence, should be reframed to include humanity’s persistent inability to learn from its mistakes.
As a firm believer in the openness of the text, I have no problems with the fact that The Sparrow contains within it a number of possible reading; however, the question I wish to put to my fellows here at the School is this: is The Sparrow an apology for or a condemnation of the missionary impulse in Christianity and, just as importantly, in European modernity? Is it both? Is it neither? Does anyone, no matter what their crimes or their intentions, deserve to suffer as Emilio Sandoz suffers, both physically and spiritually?
 Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (London: Black Swan, 1996). 505.
 Peter Nicholls, ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, in P. Nicholls (ed.), Explorations of the Marvelous (London: Fontana, 1978: pp. 170-196): 180.
 Russell, Sparrow, 9.
 Russell, Sparrow, 423.
 Russell, Sparrow, 471.
 Russell, Sparrow, 10.
 Russell, Sparrow, 485-486.
 Russell, Sparrow, 488.
 Russell, Sparrow, 478.
 Russell, Sparrow, 490.