Here’s a test for our readers: How many of you remember the low-level media fracas that erupted about five or six years ago on the subject of evil albinos? What I remember of it (before I googled “evil albinos,” that is, and thereby became highly informed on the topic) is that in the wake of the movie version of The DaVinci Code – in which an albino named Silas is a religious fanatic who whips himself and is the pawn of the people who are trying to prevent Robert Langdon and others from learning the secret about Mary Magdalene’s role as Christ’s secret wife – people started to notice that albinos are over-represented as antagonists in movies, TV shows, and books. Wikipedia’s page on evil albinos (oh, all right – it’s not really called that) lists really a startling number of albino characters, most of which I hadn’t heard of, who are in some way evil. Wikipedia also mentions that the general tendency to portray albinos as evil is probably connected to the vampire myth and the tendency of writers to emphasize the pale, deathly complexion of vampires. And, as you know, we LOVE vampires here on Postcards from Purgatory!
Well, it may appear that Hollywood’s crusade against albinos has died down a bit, but I have a prediction to make. I predict that Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology (and the many sequels for which this novel clearly lays the groundwork) will be made into a movie sometime in the not-too-distant future, at which time there will be roles available for hundreds of evil albino actors. And after that all the albino-rights advocacy groups and albino-discrimination attorneys will find their phones ringing off the hook as well.
How’s that for job creation, Mitt Romney?
This novel takes its premise from a literal interpretation of the following verses from Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bear children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Gen 6:4). Drawing on a combination of medieval lore about angels and on her own imagination, Trussoni imagines that these “giants in the earth” were actually angels called Watchers, who were sent to earth after the fall of Adam and Eve to supervise mankind and serve as intermediaries between humans and God. Some of the Watchers, however, became enamored of human women and decided to seduce and marry them. These couplings produced a hybrid race of beings called Nephilim, which were half human and half angel. At some point, God became aware that his Watchers were diddling the human women and got angry, so he imprisoned the offending angels in Bulgaria.
I’ll take a moment to let this detail sink in. He imprisoned the Watchers in Bulgaria. In an underground jail.
Now, angels in this novel are extremely pale (hence the many roles for albinos), and sometimes they are radioactive and cause horrible burns to humans who come close to them (but not to the human women who had sex with the Watchers – maybe sexual arousal turns off the radioactivity? I don’t know. I’ll have to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say on the subject.). And they are not necessarily always good guys. And after the libindinous Watchers were sent to their underground prison in Bulgaria, some of their Nephilistic offspring were watching from a distance as Noah and his sons built their ark in preparation for the great flood. For those who may not remember the Biblical basis for Western racism, Trussoni reminds us that Noah’s son Ham became the ancestor of the African races, Noah’s son Shem became the ancestor of the Middle Eastern races (hence the term “Semitic”), and Noah’s son Japheth became the ancestor of the Europeans. Since Japheth was fair-skinned and blond, one of the Nephilim figured out that he could attack Japheth and then replace him, since as a Nephilim he was also blond and fair-skinned.
So he did. Japheth wandered away from the ark for a while and the Nephilim knocked him out, stole his clothes, and boarded the ark. When the ark floated away and the rains wiped out the rest of the population of the earth (except, of course, for the Watchers in their underground prison. Because underground prisons don’t flood.), present on the ark were Japheth’s wife and children, along with the NEW Japheth, who wasted no time having more children, to whom he passed along his Nephilistic genes. So when the ark landed and Japheth’s family took off to Europe to become the ancestors of all Europeans, some of those children were fully human and others had both human and Nephilistic genes. And according to the world as it is set up in this novel, the power struggles between the two lines of Japheth’s issue account for all of the cruelty and oppression in European history.
Now. My tone has been fairly mocking thus far, and for the most part this novel deserves it. But you have to admit that this idea is not without its appeal. According to this novel, all the medieval kings and popes were Nephilim, who used their superior strength and intelligence to defeat and oppress the majority of the population who were fully human. The presence of Nephilim in the population also explains the colonization of much of the globe by Europeans in the 16th through 19th centuries, the rise of mega-rich capitalists pulling the string of world markets in the 19th through 21st centuries, and, among many other atrocities, the actions of the Nazis. And who doesn’t like a novel that offers an explanation for the actions of the Nazis that doesn’t require us to accept the reality that sometimes human beings do unconscionable things – without the involvement of any supernatural beings whatsoever?
There’s that mocking tone again. Sorry.
Everything I’ve told you so far is essentially the novel’s backstory, revealed in bits and pieces over the book’s 452 pages. The novel itself takes place during approximately one week surrounding Christmas of 1999, just as the world readies itself for the long-awaited Y2K new year. Its plot resembles that of many other intellectual-and/or-religious thrillers like the works of Dan Brown, Katherine Neville, Umberto Eco, and others. Here are the basics: Evangeline is a nun whose order – unbeknownst to her – has long played a role in protecting the world from the evil designs of the Nephilim. Verlaine is a young art historian who has been hired by a dying old man to investigate a reputed correspondence between Abigail Rockefeller and Mother Innocenta, a former administrator of Evangeline’s convent who died when the convent caught on fire in 1944. Percival is the dying old man who wants to learn more about this correspondence, because he thinks these two women may have known the hiding place of an ancient artifact that could help cure his debilitating illness.
OK, but here’s the thing: Percival is not really a dying old man. He is really a dying old Nephilim. And it is in Percival’s illness that the novel really does start to get interesting. It appears that a new disease is circulating among Nephilim, a disease that causes them to lose the parts of their bodies that identify them as angelic. Percival’s wings have essentially shriveled up, and they are now reduced to gangrenous, rotting stumps that he must keep contained in a painful leather harness. He is also expected to die much sooner than expected (in the past, Nephilim have had life spans of several centuries). Most interesting, though, is the fact that Percival is developing an emotional life that seems strikingly human. He is developing qualities like sympathy and compassion, previously absent in Nephilim (think Nazis), prompting the pitiable situation that none of his family members are capable of sympathizing with him as he suffers with his illness. And for the first time in his long life he is starting to sympathize with humans – even as he tries desperately to keep all of these new feelings a secret and pretend to be his old cruel self so he won’t draw the mockery of his family and friends.
Oh, and get this: angels breathe through their wings. Or, more specifically, the respiratory system of angels (and Nephilim) are designed in such a way that the wings are an outgrowth of the lungs. An angel whose wings are chopped off in battle immediately suffocates to death. As a result, Percival is finding it harder and harder to breathe as his wings shrivel up. From an etymological perspective I find this detail fascinating, since the root “spir,” as found in “spirit,” “inspiration,” and “aspiration,” means “to breathe” (as in “respiration”). So it is an angel’s breath (i.e. “spirit”) that allows it to fly. I love that.
And of course there’s more: it turns out that Evangeline is descended from a long line of professional angelologists, all cloyingly named after some element of angelic lore (Angela, Seraphina, Gabriela, Raphael, etc.), and that she was placed in her convent at the age of twelve by her father and grandmother in order to protect her from some fate that she herself does not understand until the end of the novel. Among the other nuns in the convent is the elderly, wheelchair-bound Sister Celestine Clochette, who turns out to be an old friend of Evangeline’s grandmother and in possession of information that will help Evangeline better understand herself, her family, and her destiny.
Symbolically and structurally, this novel abounds with missed opportunities. Its story is entertaining enough, but not enough is done to exploit the symbolic potential of Percival’s illness – which is essentially causing him to “descend” back into human form as he loses his angelic identity. Not enough is done to explore the idea of “good” angels versus “bad” angels – allusions are made to Paradise Lost and the rebel angels, and of course the Watchers are interred in their own “hell” of sorts, but Trussoni could have done much more to explore this dichotomy. And the character of Verlaine is almost completely undeveloped. He is introduced early as a quirky intellectual but is soon totally subsumed by the novel’s backstory, to which Trussoni devotes most of the second third of the novel. By the time he reappears to help the angelologists defeat the Nephilim, he seems tiny and significant next to the enormous symbolic and theological weight of all the angelic mythology. And then he and Evangeline turn out to be in love – just like that! I wasn’t really surprised when this happened, because in intellectual thrillers there is always sexual tension between the hero and heroine who are trying to solve the story’s central mystery. But in this case little was done to develop this sexual tension over time.
But worst of all: None of the nuns turned out to be evil. I was really hoping that at least one of the nuns would be evil.
Trussoni ends the novel by clearly setting up a sequel, and I have no doubt that she has plans for several more volumes about Evangeline and Verlaine. I enjoyed this novel at times but had had enough of it by the time it was over – I definitely don’t see myself rushing out to read the sequel. But all the raw materials are here for an intriguing dramatization of the age-old question of a battle between good and evil, and it is entirely possibly that Trussoni will learn from some of the rookie errors she made in this novel and write sequels that are tighter in their plotting, more devoted to character development, and more willing to mine the symbolic richness of their subject matter.
So maybe I will rush out to read them. We’ll see.