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Books: Archbishop’s Parable

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THE MANGO ON THE MANGO TREE (260 pp.)—David Mathew—Knopf ($3).

The eleven passengers on the big airliner over Africa were an ill-assorted lot. Even before the forced landing beyond Khartoum, anyone could have guessed that only the civilized amenities would keep their clashing backgrounds and personalities from breaking into open nastiness. Lij Makonnen, for example, was an effete Ethiopian prince on his way home from Paris. He hated all Englishmen—especially muscular Christian colonizers like young Peter Richards, who gloried in the weight of the white man’s burden. Even on the dark side of the color line which galled the three Africans aboard, there was no brotherhood. To Mr. O. K. Chibude, a leftist civil servant on the make, native Missionary Josiah Selwyn was a timid object of contempt. Lij Makonnen despised them both.

As a part-time novelist, Author Mathew, Roman Catholic archbishop and Apostolic Delegate for Eastern and Western British Africa, is less charitable than his fellow novelist, Cardinal Spellman (The Foundling). A 49-year-old Englishman who started out to be a Navy officer, he shows nearly as much contempt as compassion for his cast of travelers. He wastes no time storytelling. Instead, having his characters where he wants them, he expertly lays bare their frustrations and the cheap ambitions that spur them on. When he brings them down with engine trouble, it is only to show how they disintegrate in adversity.

Most of the men & women in Novelist Mathew’s planeload are in Africa for uninspiring reasons, e.g., failure at home, husbands stationed there. The exception is young Navigator Ivor McKenna, a Catholic, and the spirit that makes him different gives the author his message: “[After confession] he felt a strange lightness and ease, a spring of gratitude, thankfulness to God. . . In a moment he was flooded by a sense of God’s mercy. . . At a level beyond personal likings, a deep unity of spirit bound together all those who accepted and were molded by the Catholic Faith.”

Archbishop Mathew’s point seems to be that his characters are without love for their fellows because they are without love for God. In his zeal, he also seems to be saying that love can express itself—in Africa, at least—only through Catholicism. As a novel, The Mango on the Mango Tree becomes a highly literate parable loaded with blunt proselytism.

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