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Anthony Burgess in 1986

Anthony Burgess was the other writer nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year it was won by Willian Golding for Rites of Passage. The quality of both that and Burgess’s Earthly Powers may be deduced from the fact that that is the only year in which just two novels were nominated. Burgess then was phenomenally unlucky, for many worse novels than his have won the prize, both before and after.

Earthly Powers was a tour de force, which brought together much contemporary history in dazzling combination. The narrator was an aging homosexual writer, who began his story with ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’ The catamite was also his secretary, which contributed to the belief that the narrator, Kenneth Toomey, was based on Somerset Maugham. The archbishop has come to ask Toomey to help with the canonization of Pope Gregory  XVII who seems to be based on several Popes, beginning with Pope John the XXIII (in whose times this Papacy is set) and including the 1981 incumbent, John Paul  II, in terms of Gregory’s charisma and presence on the world stage.

The mainspring of the story is a miracle the future Pope had performed in curing a little boy who was on the verge of certain death. The child grows up however into an evangelist who exercises control over those he converts, to the extent of persuading them to join him in a mass suicide. This is based on the Jim Jones incident in Guyana, where an American charismatic preacher persuaded his flock to imbibe FlavorAid laced I think with cyanide. The question then is whether the miracle wrought by the future Pope was aided by God or by the devil.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2010
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