Colin Thubron is one of England’s foremost travel writers. This skill is reflected in “Night of Fire”, his first novel in fifteen years. The plot is thin and irrelevant. It is structured as a biography of the fictional tenants of a Victorian house that is burning down. The characters are the landlord, a failed priest, a naturalist, a photographer, a boarding school boy and a traveler. For most of the novel it seems to be a collection of short stories. However, it seems more complex as it slowly progresses.
A theme may be expressed in one line of one of the last stories. “We say that life is a burning house.” What “life” is may be existential. Science is juxtaposed against religious belief, and comparative religious beliefs yield alternative views of reality and existence. In the end, you are not sure if you have read multiple fictional biographies, or a composite of a single life.
Parental abandonment is a common theme in many of the stories. It made me wonder, if the novel is partly autobiographical or merely consistent with the novel being about one life.
The novel begins and ends with the landlord. He is an astronomy buff, and is peering at the celestial wonder of the universe. His other interests align with the other tenants. He is watching a rain of fire in the sky-sixty Quadrantids from a nova that left a dark void.
The Protestant seminarians in the chapter about the Priest, are mostly broken children who are searching for their parent or parental approval through the church. Their theology is confronted by Orthodox Christianity at the monasteries near Mount Athos and by the Rwandan refugees in Tanzania who blend the teachings of the Church with their own orthodoxy. Some find the monasteries to be “a mirror of the celestial world, following a changeless scheme.” The Protestants separate from the dead. For the Orthodox Christians the soul is embodied within the body and the dead are connected to the living.
“The church in this inflamed light, was becoming as they wished: the refraction of God’s universe, inhabited less by men- who had grown small in His worship- than by the supernatural populace looming from the walls and columns, ignited by human prayer, and growing minute by minute closer and more alive.”
The converted refugee Tutsis, consistent with the storytelling of African custom, revel in the Bible, but not in the sermons. They have absorbed more life suffering then can be preached. They have “no concept of repentance or salvation through Christ. Their faith is a narcotic.”
Is belief and memory just a state of mind? Is the world created and destroyed in the brain? The chapter about the neurosurgeon is consumed by these questions. He is to operate on a man who believes he communicates with God through his seizures and is concerned that the neurosurgeon will “cut God out of me with your knife.” The surgeon explains the anatomy of God.
“Rational ideas of God evolve in the frontal cortex, Mr. Peters. The occipital lobe may anthropomorphize God, and the limbic region supply emotional experience of Him. Suppressed activity in the parietal area can induce the conviction of unity with the divine.”
The tenant Stephanie is a lepidopterist. The younger, ignored daughter of a deceased mother and a father who was cold to her. She finds wonder and beauty in the creation of butterflies. She finds love with an older woman. She is the exception to the postulate that the novel is about one life.
The photographer lives in a world of illusions. Like Stephanie his reality is altered from his practical and successful older sibling. His relationships with women reflect his image of them, not what actually appears. Before he is consumed by the fire his drug induced dream has his memories being extracted by forceps, one by one, from his surgically opened head, until his empty shell of a body is suspended and rotates to gaze at him.
The schoolboy chapter continued the theme of children that are mentally or physically separated from their parents. Here the child was placed in an English boarding school while his parents lived and worked in Cyprus. He tried to convince the Head of the school and his classmates that they died. He was reprimanded by the school and his more responsible older brother. He dreamed of a different existence.
“He used to imagine himself a great surgeon who restored the dying, or a missionary leading peoples to God. Nothing was too hard for him. He became a photographer whose creations outshone real life, and an explorer or naturalist who disappeared into the unknown and returned with butterflies as huge as eagles.”
The Traveller ties the other biographies together into a novel and not a group of short stories. An old monk in Tibet conveys a different understanding of life, memory and God.
“Yet no soul existed. There was no lasting human essence, they said. Only the journey itself, the karma of cause and effect. ..”We don’t believe in the existence of God. There is no Creator. There are gods who aids to understanding, but they die. They are illusions.'”
“The world began to thin and vanish with the illumination that led at last to nirvana. It was the self that created its surroundings. And the self too was an illusion: the greatest of all. It was meditation.. that brought this purified vision.”
“‘When people dream … they imagine that all sorts of desires and terrors are real. But then they wake up. The ‘I’ is like that too. It is dreaming illusion.'”
Reading this novel takes patience. It is rewarded in the end.