Review by Dr Pat Pinsent

AMRUTHA. What the Pope's man found out about the Law of Nature, by John Wijngaards

Review for NETWORK, journal of Catholic Women's Network, Issue No 108, September 2011, pp. 21-22.



Dr Pat Pinsent, Senior Research Fellow, Roehampton University, London

Author and editor of many books, among them: East meets West in Children’s Literature (ed.); Books and Boundaries: Writers and Their Audiences (ed.); Children’s Literature and the Politics of Equality, and The Power of the Page (ed).

This lively and action-packed book by John Wijngaards immediately recalls Voltaire’s Candide (1759), in which a naïve young man, by means of his travels, becomes disillusioned about optimism as propounded by Leibnitz: all, he discovers, is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In Wijngaard’s book, the not-quite-so-young, but equally naïve, Monsignor Shamus McKenna (known as ‘Muss’), who works in the inner circles of the Vatican and is obedient above all to papal authority, travels the world on a project (to which he thinks he has been commissioned by Ghanian-born Pope Victor VI) to do research into the nature of ‘Woman’. In the process, he is disabused of his facile understanding of Natural Law, the principle upon which Church laws are ostensibly based, as well as coming to dissent from the general magisterium conviction that women’s nature is subordinate to that of men.

The ‘Foreword’ to the book begins with a striking sentence, which we soon learn is spoken by Muss’s daughter Gulika, ‘In my culture, on Rockbottom Island, everyone knows that women are superior to men. My father was the exception.’ The chapters that follow depict how Muss falls in love with Gulika’s mother, Amrutha, and has a balloon flight over the Indian ocean with her and Noorasiken, a Muslim woman. Time spent with the female community on the island is particularly illuminating to Muss, and he concludes his research with the discovery that ‘Natural law for human beings is our power of reasoning … not some blind physical rule that has been imposed on us … It was human reason that determined the good or evil of an act …’ This conviction, together with his physical union with Amrutha (if two human beings are ‘one flesh’, how can the nature of one be superior to that of another?) leads him to oppose the worldwide subjugation of women and to take a positive stance towards the use of condoms and gay and lesbian sex. To his surprise, when he presents these findings, Pope Victor is far from enthusiastic (demonstrating that Muss is still somewhat naïve!)

To provide more details about the plot, and the amazing events which change Muss’s views, would detract from the suspense and interest of the story. The basic narrative is interspersed by some fascinating folk-tales, and by the stories of Amrutha and Noorasiken which reveal how women are oppressed in various cultures throughout the world. Despite – or perhaps because of – its polemical intent, the story succeeds in holding the reader’s interest throughout. The device of having ‘Cynic’, the voice of Muss’s conscience or possibly superego, frequently enter into debate with the protagonist adds an effective dramatic element, while the individuation of the speech of the various characters, especially Noorasiken, adds to the appeal. Altogether, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Pat Pinsent, Senior Research Fellow, Roehampton University, London

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