The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson

Among the arguments against the existence of God, pedophilia is surely one of the more compelling. Human beings are ingenious in the variety and cruelty of the sufferings we inflict upon each other, yet even St. Paul, who has a lot to say about the sins of the flesh—indeed, he is suspiciously hot on the subject—is silent in the matter of child abuse. Perhaps in the old days, as indeed in our young days, children, being mere adults-in-waiting, were considered fair game.

The narrator of The Sacrament is a French nun, Sister Johanna Marie, who in the late 1980s is sent by the Vatican to Iceland to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse at a Catholic school in Reykjavík. There have been sexual anomalies in her own life, which, along with her ability to speak the language, is precisely the reason she is sent to Iceland. For of course the Vatican wants the evidence disproved, and who better to do the dirty work than an investigator who is herself, in Pauline terms, tainted?

Even St. Paul, who has a lot to say about the sins of the flesh, is silent in the matter of
child abuse.

Olafsson’s novel seems simple on the surface but is highly ingenious technically. The action is skilfully set in three time periods: the 1960s, the 1980s, and more or less the present. The tone is calm throughout, even to the point of banality. This makes all the more horrifying the horrors to be disclosed. The result is at once a mystery story and a handbook of moral ambiguities—a cross, we might say, between Agatha Christie and Søren Kierkegaard—written by a native Icelander who lives in New York and is, wait for it, the former executive vice president of Time Warner.

Sister Pact

The Sacrament, as its title suggests, is a God-haunted book. “Only when I encountered the devil did I realize that God must exist,” Sister Johanna Marie declares early on, with an uncharacteristically biblical flourish. Yet by the end of two anguished journeys to the land of ice and fire, undertaken 20 years apart, her faith has been shaken to its perhaps not-so-deep roots. “Do I believe in you?” she asks rhetorically of the Deity. “I believe in man’s goodness, and evil. I don’t believe in absolution, eternal life, your mercy.” This is a radical negation by a woman who has sacrificed so much to the religious life.

Her predicament is indeed one of Kierkegaardian absurdity, for as she discovers, “my entire life has been built upon a misunderstanding.” As a young theology student at the Sorbonne she fell in love with Halla, her Icelandic roommate, though her passion remained undeclared. All the same, her secret is divined by the suavely sinister Father, later to be Cardinal, Raffin, who is the one who will send her on her hindered mission to Iceland.

The Vatican wants the evidence disproved, and who better to do the dirty work than an investigator who is herself tainted?

On her first trip there, Sister Johanna Marie discovers the abuse charges to be all too well founded, although she cannot secure sufficiently strong evidence to compel the Church to act effectively. As a result, she takes it upon herself to exact retribution. This results in a twist-in-the-tail ending which sits ill with the admirably subdued overall tenor of the book. It is a flaw, but not a fatal one. Much more persuasive is her discovery, in a satisfyingly plausible turn of events, that by bowing to Father Raffin’s interdiction upon her student love for Halla she threw away what should have been her life’s true vocation.

The Sacrament is a finely crafted, deeply moving meditation on the wickedness of man, the high costs involved in living and loving, and the price of pledging one’s faith to a Deus absconditus. As Sister Johanna Marie bitterly tells her God, “Your justice is more merciless than man’s injustice. You speak of love and show us the sun to give us hope. But then autumn arrives, the grass withers and the flowers fall, and after that it’s winter…”

John Banville is the author of several novels, including The Sea, for which he won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and, most recently, Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, out now