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'Sophia House': A bookshop owner grapples with meaning of faith and love

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``Sophia House'' by Michael D. O'Brien; Ignatius ($24.95)


The phrase "act of faith" tends to suggest a single, decisive moment, a crossing of a threshold, on one side of which lie longing, doubt and anxiety, and on the other certainty, security, fulfillment. But whoever makes a genuine act of religious faith soon learns it must be renewed almost daily and was but a single step on a lifelong pilgrimage, that doubt, anxiety, longing and worse will be encountered again and again.

This is the central, unifying theme of "Strangers and Sojourners," a series of six novels by Canadian author Michael D. O'Brien. "Sophia House,'' O'Brien's latest, which concludes the series, is actually a prequel to "Father Elijah,'' which began it.

O'Brien has a knack for making it painfully clear that whatever consolations faith may bring come at a high personal price - costing, in fact, in T.S. Eliot's phrase, "not less than everything." O'Brien is also a painter, and the question of the relationship between art and religion, beauty and faith, also figures prominently in his work.

Sophia House is the name Pawel Tarnowski gives to the secondhand bookstore in Warsaw that he inherits from his Uncle Tadeusz. Pawel returned to Warsaw just before the outbreak of World War II after spending some years in Paris. He went to Paris hoping to become an artist, but failed at that and succeeded at nothing else. He did, however, exchange some letters with Georges Rouault, who warned him that "if you corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability to understand things as they are, making us vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions."

We get to know Pawel quite well, seeing him change from a happy, hopeful child into a dreamy and timid one, becoming a withdrawn, moody and aimless youth, and finally a bitter, tormented man, ill at ease not only with others but most of all with himself.

Pawel had let his Catholic faith lapse during his time in Paris, but his personal misery has prompted him to rekindle it ever so slightly. The decisive act that will serve to fan it, with no little difficulty, into a small but unwavering flame takes place quite suddenly. Pawel's shop is on a tiny side street, a cul-de-sac. One afternoon someone steps up to his door - "more deeply recessed than the others" on the block - and presses himself tightly against it. Pawel opens the door. The figure stumbles inside, and Pawel tells him to run up the stairs. Pawel then settles into his chair by the door and when the German soldiers burst in and ask if he's "seen a Jew boy run this way," he tells them he has not.

Pawel's everyday consciousness is dominated by fear, and that fear quickly returns: "Why did I do it?" he asked himself. "Why such a decision, made without careful consideration of all the factors?"

The fugitive turns out to be a 17-year-old Hasid, David Schafer, through whom Pawel will come to know himself, by coming to know what it means to love. In part this happens because David is wise beyond his years. He tells Pawel that "we must take care with our words. A word changes existence. We must protect the purity of language, for it carries the sacred from one to another." Remembering what Rouault had written to him, Pawel tells David that "an old painter once told me something similar."

But David is also physically beautiful, and Pawel finds his love mixed with lust, a lust that rouses in him a memory that is the source of the fear that has held him in its grip for so long. Yes, Pawel Tarnowski is most likely gay. But O'Brien's book is not about that. Pawel's gayness is an important note - though by no means the most important - in the facticity of a man on the difficult path to sainthood.

Polish Count Smerkov, one of the bookshop's patrons, is both gay and evil. But his gayness has nothing to do with his evil. He would be just as evil were he as straight as John Wayne.

Much of "Sophia House'' is taken up with the dialogue - utterly fascinating - between David and Pawel. But one key section is a short play Pawel writes about the medieval Russian icon master Andrei Rublev. Pawel writes it to keep a grip on his sanity, but it also serves to provide a final bitter twist to Pawel's tale, thanks (sort of) to another of the store's patrons, German Maj. Kurt Haftmann. Haftmann is far from being a "good" German, but not every spark of his humanity has been extinguished.

"Sophia House'' is a very Catholic book. But there is no Hollywood-style, holy-card piety to be found in its pages. The story of Pawel Tarnowski may arrive at a happy conclusion (that is for each individual reader to decide). But by no stretch of the imagination can it be called a pleasant one.


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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