So… uh… what are you working on at the moment? About 18 months ago I was asked this at a party by a distant acquaintance. So I told her about my new novel, Scorn. "That," she said with merciless finality, "sounds like a terrible idea."
“How rude!” I hear you say. But reserve judgement on her lack of good manners until you hear what I told her.
Scorn begins with a brutal attack by an English nun on a small boy in a Catholic primary school near Oxford. The child, Aaron Gall, is the son of Irish immigrants and his crime consists of his writing the number nine untidily in his maths book. Decades later, after another six years in a grim Catholic boarding school, Aaron is now a scientist at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and suffering from an increasingly debilitating depression. But then a malfunction in the Collider causes a tiny black hole to open up in his brain. When he wakes up several days later he discovers he has the power to change at will into a wolf – a wolf with all of his great intellectual powers intact and, in place of depression, a joyful animal exuberance and a delight in mischief of every kind. Aaron the wolf decides that a reckoning with the church is long overdue and begins visiting the surviving priests from his childhood, entering into complex arguments with them about religion and the nature of the will to power. Then he eats them.
So delighted is Aaron the wolf with this blissfully violent retribution that he becomes more ambitious and decides to confront the Archbishop of Westminster, Tony Blair (the wolf is seriously miffed by Tony’s decision to convert to the One True Faith) and finally the Pope himself. By now you may have reconsidered your judgement about my acquaintance’s impertinence.
The thing to stress, however, is that none of the people eaten by Aaron have themselves sexually or physically assaulted anyone. A few years ago I was watching a news item on the BBC where its Vatican correspondent concluded by saying that the Catholic Church must deal with the issue of child sexual abuse in order to regain its moral authority. The response to this is to ask: what moral authority? Answering this question is where the book enters territory largely untouched by the many excellent works that have taken on the Church recently such as The Magdalene Sisters, Spotlight and Philomena. All the documentaries and films I've seen have tended to err in the same way that the BBC correspondent erred: they've allowed the Catholic Church to restrict the debate to the sole issue of extreme sexual and physical abuse and its covering it up as if such a vile set of priorities could possibly exist in an otherwise morally and spiritually healthy ideology.
But none of the fictional or documentary criticisms have been able, either because of legal restrictions or the complexity of the task, to show that these terrible abuses are fundamentally related to the underlying nature of the religion itself. The risk of doing so is considerable after all: accusations must follow of religious persecution, of causing deep offence to the profound beliefs of hundreds of millions. The arguments brought to the table by the wolf are too long and complex to set out here but his priestly opponents are no pushovers: one is a renowned Oxford scholar and the Pope is someone able to give as good as he gets – you must buy the book to see if I’ve done the issues full dramatic and intellectual justice.
Oddly enough, my belief in the power of ideas in fiction to grip comes from my Catholic upbringing
But along with your scepticism about the peculiar, not to say tasteless and offensive, elements of the story you are entitled to ask: how can a novel deal with something as tricky and convoluted as the theology and history of the Catholic Church and still be a novel, an entertainment, and not a dreary anti-sermon?
Oddly enough, my belief in the power of ideas in fiction to grip comes from my Catholic upbringing during which discussions in class about dramatic questions involving salvation and damnation were a daily occurrence. Oddly enough we often found them utterly absorbing. The only problem is that the ideas were often terrible: but along with the Four Sins crying out to heaven for vengeance, the Immaculate Conception and the guarantee of salvation through the Nine Fridays, there were also fascinating arguments about the nature of evil, of suffering and the purpose of life itself.
The English are deeply suspicious of big ideas (poncy, pretentious things), but Irish Catholicism gave me a passionate conviction that argument about what it means to be fully human is as inherently dramatic as murder or a farcical adultery. If you’re not convinced by this, imagine a class of 30 11-year-old boys and a middle-aged celibate enthusiastically agreeing on the evils of a married woman using contraceptives (so wonderfully comic, so horribly tragic).
And the mix of tragedy and comedy brings me to what else is different about Scorn. It's not a comic novel but it only sometimes shares the grim horror that seems inevitably and understandably to stain documentaries and fiction about being a child in the Catholic Church. There is a reason for this. While we were stuck in that horrible school where two of my close friends were subject to attempted rapes (by one priest only – let's be rigorous here), another given a kicking for popping a blown-up paper bag in the refectory; and I was beaten in the gym with one of those climbing ropes the thickness of a man's arm – there was an absolute determination among many of us to defy the priests with the one weapon we had against their absolute power, a weapon which inspired the title of the book.
Scorn was our one means of resisting the priests and preserving our sanity. Mockery and ridicule were the only powers we had
Scorn was our one means of resisting the priests and preserving our sanity. Mockery and ridicule were the only powers we had. We made up preposterous sermons and improvised gruesome prayers at our own deathbeds; we worked on our talent for the cruellest mimicry of any and every defect of priestly intellect or physical deformity. We drew abusive cartoons about our tormentors and their ludicrous notions about holy relics and the agonies of hell in the margins of books, and carved them into the desks (there are 18 roughly drawn doodles in Scorn in remembrance of this).
One of my friends delighted in clearing his throat in varying degrees of utter incredulity every time a priest mentioned the doctrine of papal infallibility. I wanted to celebrate this scurrilous defiance of the Church's soul-destroying determination to exert control of our every thought, word and deed. Scorn and its hairy, waggish, madcap, murderous hero is the result.
Scorn by Paul Hoffman is published by Red Opera, at £18.99