Avenue of Mysteries is a Chagall. John Irving has painted a Chagall with words, a Catholic Chagall (not sure how Marc Chagall who was Jewish would feel about that). Of course the Chagall made most famous in the movies is the one with the goat and the wedding couple defying gravity. Irving has geckos, Virgin Marys, “dump” children, a gay couple, lots of Jesuits and some skywalkers in this very Chagall-esque novel. It’s a complicated story line with plenty of whimsy and deep philosophical contemplation.
Juan Diego and Luce live with the “dump” master on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico. Some children survive by pulling things that are worth money from the dump to sell. Juan Diego and his sister have it better than other “dump” kids because they live with Rivera and they have a mom, who although beautiful is a prostitute and, oddly, also a cleaning lady for the Jesuits. Juan Diego shines above the other “dump” children because he is a “dump” reader. He taught himself to read using old Jesuit texts that were sent to the dump to be burned. In addition he knows how to speak English and he can interpret his sister Luce’s mysterious language. Luce is a mind reader, not a fortune teller. She is not as good at knowing the future.
Father Pere takes a special interest in Juan Diego and so Juan Diego and Luce get very mixed up with the Catholic Church, although they are not believers. These two children are obsessed with the Marys – the one the Spanish conquerors brought over and the one discovered at Guadalupe whose likenesses both reside in the nearby church and more.
The Catholic Church is, in fact, at the center of this Irving novel but the relationships people have with the church are anything but simple. Choosing between the rules and what seems like common sense creates a dilemma for many good Catholics.
“Your rules! What do the rules have to do with the way people actually live?” Vargas asked him.”
“Of course the Church was ‘genuine’ in its love of poor people, as Clark always argued – Juan Diego didn’t dispute this. Why wouldn’t the Church love poor people? Juan Diego was in the habit of asking Clark. But what about birth control? What about abortion? It was the ‘social agenda’ of the Catholic Church that made Juan Diego mad. The church’s policies – in opposition to contraception! – not only subjected women to the ‘enslavement of childbirth’ as Juan Diego put it to Clark, ‘the Church’s policies kept the poor poor and made them poorer. Poor people kept reproducing, didn’t they?”
Sounds a bit preachy but it isn’t. You know where the author (and the main character) stand but you are not obligated to stand in the same place as long as you don’t care about the author’s respect. This novel is not as cheerful as Chagall’s painting but it has plenty of symbolism to unravel (everything that happens in the Philippines, for example and those two strange women, Miriam and Dorothy) and it has its lighter moments as well as its profound moments. My unrequited love affair with John Irving continues.
By Nancy Brisson
<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/7616365-nancy-brisson”>View all my reviews</a>