Most of us — if we think about it at all — probably suppose that the end of the world will begin with the push of a red button somewhere deep within a concrete missile silo. We would certainly not associate it with the push of a brown envelope across a polished mahogany desk in a monastery. But the latter action, Laurance Cosse assures us in “A Corner of the Veil” (Scribner, English translation from the French by Linda Asher, 1999), could be just as devastating.
This delightful novel opens with incontrovertible proof of God’s existence. The brown envelope containing the document is delivered to Father Bertrand Beaulier, a member of the Society of Casuists, in rural France. The shockwaves quickly radiate upward through the Casuists’ hierarchy, and outward to Paris, where they score a direct hit on the government of Jean-Charles Petitgrand, prime minister of France.
Ms. Cosse has cleverly used the effect of the proof upon her characters to reveal their personalities with considerable economy, as well as to entertain the reader. These reactions range from unwillingness to read the proof at all by some of the Casuist hierarchy (it is only six pages), to this description of Prime Minister Petitgrand’s trip home the evening he first read the proof:
“He had to confess at once. An exception to his rule: for the past thirty years he went to confession once a year, the minimum prescribed for Catholics. But tonight was an emergency … he pushed the button labeled ‘Community’ (at the parish).
“‘Yes?’ said a fifty-year-old in spectacles and a gray sweater. ‘Is this an emerg–‘ From the collapse of his voice it was clear that he had just recognized his interlocutor.
“‘Are you a priest?’ asked the newcomer.
“‘Father Paindavoine, the curate of this parish.’
“‘Father, I ardently desire to confess.’
“‘This way,’ said the priest. ‘We have a small chapel on the ground floor.’ He had regained his confidence. He was mistaken. This visitor couldn’t be the prime minister. So humble, so contrite a man.”
Lower level ministers, however, take a rather dimmer view of the roof. Not having read the document themselves, they are immune to it and begin offering projections on its effect:
“‘Within six months, within a year, we have to imagine France as one huge monastery. Everything that today is the motivating force of the advanced liberal societies — the spirit of enterprise, the quest for wealth, the concern for efficiency, the work ethic … briefly, what others might call the every-man-for-himself, the activism, the copycat greed, money as guiding light — at the announcement of the proof that God exists, all of that will no longer seem important to our fellow citizens. … The first effect of the proof of God’s existence on society as a whole is an economic crisis without precedent.”
Then, of course, the ministerial bureaucrats assure one another, there are the Muslims, the Jews, and the Buddhists to consider — since this is the Christian God who has seen fit to reveal proof of His existence. How will they take all of this?
Questions and intrigue build as the proof works its way through the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome. At each step of the journey, more is revealed by the proof through the actions and ambitions of the characters inhabiting the religious hierarchy. It is during this time that the defrocked priest who first unearthed the proof becomes its initial casualty.
It would be unfair of me to reveal the ending of this both humorous and all-too-true journey the proof of God’s existence makes through the government, the church, and indeed, the human soul. It is not a profound book, but it is both humorous and enjoyable — and a quick read to boot. The questions that it raises about individual and collective humanity, however, approach the profound. I am certain that we shall revisit them in future columns.