by John Herried | IPNovels.com
We sit down with the author of the new Ignatius novel Ceremony of Innocence, Dorothy Cummings McLean. A Canadian writer living abroad, she has been a regular contributor to The Catholic Register (Toronto). Her first book, Seraphic Singles, is a popular work of nonfiction. Until Wednesday, Ceremony of Innocence is also featured in our novel sale.
Ceremony of Innocence owes a debt to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Did Greene’s novel inspire you to write yours?
My novel is both a tribute and a parody to Greene’s novel. It’s a tribute to Greene’s amazing gifts as a storyteller and a parody of “Greeneland” in that it turns various elements of The Quiet American on their heads.
You have lived in Europe for many years. How have your experiences informed the story?
I didn’t move to Europe until after I had written the novel. However, the themes and setting of the novel spring from the summer I studied in Germany. I spent most of my time in Frankfurt-am-Main. I loved this city. It was energetic, cosmopolitan, and strangely beautiful. While I was writing, I would trace my characters’ peregrinations along a Frankfurt city map.
It was a lucky summer to be in Frankfurt because Germany was hosting the FIFA World Cup, and the German team exceeded all expectations. Suddenly it was as if the Germans had decided to be proud of Germany. Normally the Germans around me, even 22-year-old seminarians, acted as if Germany had the mark of Cain on its collective forehead. They complained about Germany endlessly, but heaven help you if you agreed. I was careful never to mention the last war—but they all did. My German friends call the Hitler years the national trauma.
The summer was lucky in other ways. While I was there, news broke that a gang of young Islamists had been arrested for planning terrorist attacks in my hometown of Toronto. I was beside myself with rage but also deeply thankful no one had been hurt. And a month later, news broke that two young Islamists had been arrested for planting bombs on trains leaving Cologne. The bombs had been left two days after I had visited Cologne—by train. They were foreign students and, as a fellow foreign student, I was disgusted.
In Joseph Ratzinger’s (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) book A Turning Point for Europe? he declares that the term “fundamentalist”, primarily associated with American Protestantism, does not really apply to current Islamist radicals, instead pointing to a fusion of Marxist and Islamic theories of liberation as being the undercurrent driving Islamist terrorism. So, despite being used as a weapon against the West, this form of terrorism has some roots in Western ideologies. Does this attraction to a kind of Marxist “liberation” play a part in the plot? Does it explain why a Westerner might be attracted to Islamist radicalism?
I think Westerners are attracted to Islamist radicalism because, to be blunt, they think it is sexy. It is strong, it is well-funded, it is exotic, and it claims to fight for the underdog. It also aligns itself with the religion of Islam, which is itself culturally strong and, thanks to the jaded Western palate, appeals to Orientalist sexual fantasies of masculine domination and feminine submission.
By contrast, Western culture divorced from Christianity and its own past is pallid, shallow, consumerist, and even distasteful, and that is the culture most Westerners of the post-Vatican II, post–mainstream Protestant era have grown up in. Unfortunately, millions of Europeans and Americans have been indoctrinated by the culture to believe that the Christianity of their ancestors is uncool and therefore bad. The victory of the counter-culture has also given rise to North America’s fratricidal culture wars and, where Islamism is concerned, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
I am certainly concerned by what Western teenagers, especially in the English-speaking world, are taught about their ancestors and the histories of their countries or, rather, what effect it has on the teenagers. If the teenagers feel inspired to make their countries better places to live, good. If the teenagers despair and think Al Qaeda is justified, bad.
Meanwhile, I am very concerned about idealistic teenagers being sucked into causes by manipulative adults, no matter what the cause.
Despite the serious nature of the issues explored in Ceremony of Innocence, there is also a great deal of humor—much of it laced with irony. How does humor assist in storytelling?