THE KAPPILLAN OF MALTA by Nicholas Monsarrat


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It's difficult to make good, fictional priests attractive or even believable. The characters who seem to engage us most are the ""problem priests,"" cf. Graham Greene, Brian Moore. That this is so may have as much to do with the quality of the writing as with the construction of the character. At any rate, Monsarrat's novel arrives with raves from English reviewers with regard to his creation of Father Salvatore, or Dun Salv, as his devoted parishioners call him. The story is set during the siege of the British possession of Malta from June, 1940 until August, 1942. Father Salvatore, the kappillan (Maltese for priest) is the descendant of an ancient Maltese family. His mother, the Baroness Celeste Santo-Nobile reigns in aristocratic splendor despite the perils surrounding them. His brother, Benedict, lives in sophisticated style in Paris where he now entertains the Germans. Lewis, his brother-in-law, is an Italian sympathizer whose allegiance will land him in prison before the war is over. But Fr. Salvatore chooses to remain ""a priest without preferment"" and to this end he quotes St. Jerome: ""Avoid, as you would the plague, a priest who is also a man of business."" When his church is bombed he establishes his congregation in the catacombs which now serve as a 24 hour air-raid shelter. During the course of the war Fr. Salvatore is removed by his superiors because of the conduct of his ""flock"" in the primitive conditions of the caves and because his own role has grown too ""exalted."" At first he rebels against the discipline but finally accepts the chastisement and spends the following 30 years in seclusion at a nearby monastery. To his people he remains a hero. The structure of Monsarrat's novel is masterly -- many subplots being carefully interwoven. But what really holds the reader's attention and admiration is the story of Malta itself which has been conquered many times in its long history. The problems and character of Father Salvatore, however, are not sufficiently complex to truly absorb us.

Pub Date: March 25th, 1974
Publisher: Morrow