Reviewed by Jerry Levy
In a world of noise, of temptations, uncertainties, alienation, and questions about our journey and who we are, one might imagine that life in a seminary would offer a welcome refuge. That once you join, you’re good for life. But herein lies the paradox of escaping into the life of faith – it too does not confer absolute certainty. Rather, it is a continual delving into spiritual questioning, of Scripture and of yearning to understand God’s insights. Where, for example, is God to be found in our suffering? But supposedly, if one asks good questions in prayer, then God will speak and lead on a journey of purpose and greater understanding. But even that journey, on the face of it, appears to be long and perhaps not linear, where doubt can make itself known. And what happens when the outside world creeps into that life of faith and piety to muddy the waters even further? When temptations from that world become too much to bear? This is at the heart of Nino Fama’s The Ocean in the Well.
The main character in the novel, Stefano, is lured from seminary life in Italy because of a woman, Milena, with whom he falls in love. Of course, this disappoints not only his family but also the villagers where he lives, who hold a religious life in high esteem. But we learn that Stefano only entered the seminary because of his family’s urgings, as a means to escape the life of the peasantry. In fact, his departure provides him with a sense of relief.
The novel opens up with a wide-eyed Stefano sitting in a taxi, about to embark on a new journey in America. He has come to New York to realize a dream of greater opportunities and wealth, paving the way for a new life for both Milena and himself. His first experience in this new world is hardly glamorous; we follow him as he settles down in a decrepit rooming house, where he shares a bathroom with other guests and has to wait in line to eat breakfast in a semi-dark basement where “frequent burping sounds hovered over the steady din.” As time passes, Stefano’s situation improves when he gets a manual labour job in a warehouse, loading and unloading heavy crates of fruit and vegetables from trucks. It’s not great, but something. A start. And things look up even more when he obtains a place of his own. All the while the image of his beloved Milena remains steadfast in his mind.
Unlike the three friends he makes at the warehouse, Antolin, Pastafasu, and Robledo, Stefano exhibits a lot of enthusiasm and determination for his job. And this does not escape the eye of his shady boss, Don Vincenzino, who offers him a new and important assignment. Stefano, fresh from cloistered seminary life, is naïve, and the assignment leads him down an unchartered path he did not anticipate, straight into prison. Naivety, it appears, is no defence when it comes to American law. It is there, languishing in prison, that he soon discovers through a series of letters from his mother that much has changed back home. He comes to realize that time doesn’t stand still for anyone, and he becomes deeply affected by the changes. Undoubtedly, while leaving seminary life might have felt like freedom for Stefano, it was followed by disorientation and a black cloud of suffering. Transition into a secular life was indeed painful.
Sorrow, grief, and regret populate the novel but it is hardly a dour read. For resilience holds equal weight and offers hope for the future, including a very unexpected ending for Stefano. So too does the power of genuine friendship, which permeates throughout the story. As the great painter Matisse once said: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” To wit, when the world appears most barren and ugly, our thoughts can help us see life through a different filter, allowing for visions of beauty, allowing us to see those flowers. And for Stefano, as he grows, he begins to see through that filter.
Make no mistake about it though: this novel is replete with very ‘heavy’ issues. Everything from the immigrant who sacrifices all for the sake of his children, only to have those same children later eschew his old-world values, to infidelity, cynicism about one’s country, issues of war, the justice system, regret, the burden and danger of back-breaking and wretched work, the value of religion, good and evil, race, the perils of material wealth…so many things. And although these topics are indeed heavy, the writing is somehow light and crisp so that one doesn’t feel overwhelmed by them. They’re carried in a hefty burlap sack but liberally sprinkled as fine dust on the page so as to make them imminently readable. Having said that, the novel might have benefitted from more spots of humour, simply to break up the tension.
The Ocean in the Well reminded me of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. In that novel, Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew who keeps kosher and prays three times a day. His is a life of ritual and revolves around his religion. But he is also an artist and he has to skirt the line between the life he was born into and the life of the imagination. And just like Stefano, he leaves the religious life, the one consecrated to God, which estranges him from the world he knows, leading him down some heartbreaking paths.
If I had one issue with the novel, it is that Stefano’s decision to leave the seminary happens too quickly. It might have been protracted out, vacillating wildly between the duty he owes to his family, even to the villagers where he lived, and the duty he owes himself. Sure he goes to the head of the seminary Father Adelmo and tells him of his dilemma and asks for advice, but the brevity of that part of the novel appears almost as an afterthought. Surely various members of the village where Stefano lives would have tried to dissuade him from leaving. Even his grandfather. Perhaps his mother herself, who, upon learning of his decision, only kneels before an image of Christ and recites Our Father. This part of the story might have been fleshed out, encompassing many more pages and bringing into the fold some very interesting characters. But this is a very small oversight, in this reviewer’s opinion. Overall, The Ocean in the Well is a thoroughly enjoyable read, a true page-turner that deals with life issues in realistic and well-turned prose.
The Ocean in the Well is published by Guernica Editions.