Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mr Andersvik in purgatory

Though a collection of short stories occupy the same 'space' as a novel, I can rarely read them sequentially, one following the other. It maybe that in their 'concentrated' story telling their imaginative space is extended such that I cannot absorb them serially.

I find that I am reading a single story of George Mackay Brown's between books, not as an interlude, but entire to themselves.

The latest story,'Brig-o-Dread', is a compelling take on the afterlife.

The protagonist finds himself in a strange, unfamiliar landscape of moorland, occupied by distracted folk, who evade engaging him. He finds within his inner resources the will (and with the help of his long dead sister) to find himself 'over the bridge' and in a new country of purgation where the original self-serving account of his life (and death) is corrected by imagined encounters with his past and with people from that past seen as if projected into their future lives (without him).

His narrowness and meanness are exposed and he grows into a new disposition and the possibilities of forgiveness.

It is a fascinating afterlife, reminiscent of Swedenborg (rather than Mackay Brown's Catholicism), in that the external state reflects your central desire, and as that is revealed the afterlife status changes. The state of repentance is occasioned not by any external punishing agent but by the world reflecting back your central desire.

What is masterful about Mackay Brown's story is how the central character's, Andersvik's, masks are stripped away - the prim, proud, improving shopkeeper becomes the narrow mean proprietor and priggish husband and brother who becomes the contrite soul open to new possibilities. It suggests, very gently, that, with Plato, all striving is striving for the good. His original impulses are sound but twisted in egotism, leading to being the narrowed character that his wife and brother perceive but are there still, buried within, and draw him out of 'hell' - the distracted moor - into purgatory.

Ultimately, Mackay Brown hints (as did C.S. Lewis with his image of the bus on which we are trapped by gossip and distraction until we finally recognise the stop and get off) that eventually everyone is lured by their fundamental goodness, however now twisted, out from the distraction of the moor into the flames of purgatory, to begin reweaving our lives back into eternal community.

This is symbolized at the end by the meal to which Mr Andersvik is not yet, not quite, invited. But will be. Salvation is never an individual achievement but a communal destination.

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