Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
The flyleaf to William Peter Blatty’s novel Dimiter (2010) gives a succinct and intriguing synopsis of the narrative’s basic plot:
Dimiter opens in the world’s most oppressive and isolated totalitarian state: Albania in the 1970s. A prisoner suspected of being an enemy agent is held by state security. An unsettling presence, he maintains an eerie silence though subjected to almost unimaginable torture. He escapes--and on the way to freedom, completes a mysterious mission. The prisoner is [Paul] Dimiter, the American “agent from Hell.”The flyleaf also suggests Blatty’s purpose, the novel’s theme being associated with “the sacred search for faith and the truth of the human condition.” Published by Tom Doherty Associates, a Christian house, the book is unlike others of its genre (Christian suspense thrillers) in that it not only contains some profanities, but it also examines faith itself in both a reverential and a skeptical, sometimes ironic, manner.
The scene shifts to Jerusalem, focusing on Hadassah Hospital and a cast of engaging, colorful characters: the brooding Christian Arab police detective, Peter Meral; Dr. Moses Mayo, a troubled but humorous neurologist; Samia, an attractive, sharp-tongued nurse; and assorted American and Israeli functionaries and hospital staff. All become enmeshed in a series of baffling, inexplicable deaths, until events explode in a surprising climax.
Blatty, of course, is also the author of The Exorcist, a novel that still excites interest among members of the clergy, philosophers, and theologians and lay readers alike, the latter of whom are perhaps more intrigued by a good, suspenseful, even horrific, story than they are by the finer points of faith and thought.
The author’s theme is reinforced by what, at first, seems but a curious habit: his inclusion of phrases that describe spiritual or psychological qualities within passages which, otherwise objective, are devoted to depicting terrain, flora, and other details of a material environment. Indeed, these subjective notations, so to speak, draw attention to themselves because of their very incongruity as subjective phrases amid objective descriptions.
One such description appears early in the novel, when Blatty is depicting a character’s hunt for a fugitive; I indicate the subjective phrases in bold font, which is not used in Blatty’s novel:
One of the dogs, a ferocious mastiff of enormous muscle and bulk, had been loosed toward a crackling sound in a wood and was later discovered lying still among gold and orange leaves on the forest floor in autumnal light as if fallen asleep and turned away from all yearning. Its neck had been broken. The leader of the force, a young smith named Rako Bey, felt a shadow pass over him at the sight, for he could not grasp the power of a human capable of killing the dog in this way. His breath a white fire on the darkening air, he scanned the wood with narrowed eyes, sifting hawthorn and hazel in search of his fate and seeing nothing but the cloud that is before men’s eyes. The sun was descending. The forest was haunted. Bare branches were icy threats, evil thoughts (14).Many other passages of the novel also mix subjective descriptions of characters’ psychological or spiritual nature with objective depictions of material existence; the effect, which is surely intentional, is to suggest that, unseen within the materialistic world of nature, the spirit of God, as Creator, is discernable as the vital essence that infuses the world and gives it no only its material existence but also its sacred purpose and its spiritual and supernatural significance. Again, I indicate the subjective phrases in bold font, which is not used in Blatty’s novel:
Vlora’s eyes flicked up. An eerie whipping wind had arisen behind him, softly moaning and thumping at the windowpanes. Uneasy, feeling watched, the Interrogator swiveled his chair around and looked through the windows to the flickering north where thick black clouds were scudding toward the city from the mountains like the angry belief of fanatical hordes, and in a moment they would darken the Square below and its anonymous granite government buildings, the broad streets drearily leading nowhere, and the rain-slick statue of Lenin commanding the empty storefront windows crammed with the ghosts of a million longings, dust, and the dim recollection of hope (46).
The corporal. . . . looked through a window at the rough stone cobbles outside the post where a gust-driven rain spattered back and forth in hesitant, indecisive sweeps like a wispy gray soul just arrived on the empty streets of some afterworld, lost and forlorn (118).
The presence of such subjective phrases among objective descriptions suggests the presence, in nature, of spirit, a theme that the novel expresses subtly, by both this technique of including the subjective, or spiritual, with the objective and material and Blatty’s allusions, through the testimony of peasants to authorities concerning various crimes or other events and the meditations, sermons, and thoughts of religious clerics (some genuine, others counterfeit). For example, in an interview with “Rako Bey, leader of the volunteer force to Quelleza, taken 10 October,” the atheistic inquisitor is offended by his respondent’s reference to “fate” and commands Bey to maintain “propriety”:
Q. And what led you to the house in the first place?Later, the interrogator is equally offended by Ligeni Shirqi, during a deposition that is taken “at Quelleza” on “12 October” and, again, orders the respondent to “maintain the proprieties”:
A. Nothing, sir. Grodd was related to the blind man who lived there, but then he is related to most of the village. Nothing led us there, Colonel. It was fate.
Q. Maintain propriety.
A. Sorry sir.
Q. Our fate is in our hands (18).
Q. Your door was unlocked?One might argue, without too much of a stretch, perhaps, that the mountains represent heaven, or faith in God, and that the city “below” represents hell, or unbelief. However, if Shirqi’s references to God are expressions of faith, they would seem to indicate that his faith is empty and mechanical, rather than authentic and zealous, for her tells his interrogator that such references are but “formulas of grace that we observe” (25).
A. Yes, it was. I heard the knocking and I called out, “Come in, you are welcome.”
Q. You didn’t think it dangerous?
A. Danger is irrelevant. Things are different here. It’s not like below. Had he killed my own children, I had to make him welcome. “I live in the house,” goes the saying, “but the house belongs to the guest and to God.”
Q. There is no God.
A. No, not in the city, perhaps, Colonel Vlora, but right now we are in the mountains and our general impression here is that he exists.
Q. Do maintain the proprieties, Uncle.
A. Does that help?
Q. Only facing reality helps (24).
Throughout the novel, Blatty juxtaposes evidence for faith with listeners’ (and speakers’) reactions to such evidence; usually, the reactions are skeptical or hostile, and behavior that seems truly to be inspired by genuine faith, such as Dimiter’s stoic resistance to his torture and the miracles that take place in Jerusalem and elsewhere, terrify, rather than edify, their witnesses. If God does exist, the characters of Dimiter seem to believe, he must be a Judge to be feared, rather than a loving Father to be adored.
However, officially, it is the contention of Colonel Vlora and his fellow atheistic authorities that “there is no God” and that human conduct is autonomous. It is perhaps because of their atheistic humanism that genuine religious faith, as seen in the stoic acceptance of his suffering on Dimiter’s part, terrify Vlora, causing him to insist that others “maintain the proprieties” of unbelief.
The miracles that occur in the instantaneous healings of several of the patients at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital also mystify and unsettle the skeptical Jew, Dr. Moses Mayo. The neurologist questions Samia, a nurse, concerning her claim to have witnessed a patient, Mrs. Lakhme, “recently crippled by a fractured hip,” walking--and looking far younger than her advanced age--but he is unable, even in the face of such testimony, to believe that such a miracle implies the existence of God:
Mayo’s gaze fixed dubiously on the crimson Star of David stitched onto her oversized starched white cap. His quest for unwavering faith in her accounts had been less than heroically advanced by the fact that he knew her to be a neurotic as well as a courageously innovative tester of the outermost limits of paranoia (83).Ironically, the novel’s theme (the presence of God, the Creator, is implied by his creation) is perhaps best expressed by a Muslim cleric who, hoping to secure intelligence from Dimiter, poses as a Christian priest who, himself a prisoner, shares Dimiter’s cell and, ostensibly, his own alleged faith in God, preaching a sermon of sorts based upon the teleological argument:
“Before the Big Bang,” he started preaching to the cell, “the entire universe was a point of zero size and infinite weight. Then the point exploded, creating space and, with it, time and its twin, disorder. And yet for our cosmos to come into existence the force of that primordial outward explosion needed to match the force of gravity with the accuracy you would need for a bullet to hit a one-inch target on the opposite side of the observable universe thirteen billion light-years away” (49).Although it would seem that the counterfeit priest’s argument from design should be convincing enough to unbiased minds, it is, ironically enough, received with the same lack of enthusiasm as is evidenced by Colonel Vlora or, for that matter, Dr. Mayo: “A fist lashed out from the darkness, striking the priest on his cheekbone with the crunching sound of gristle and flesh. ‘I told you I wanted to sleep!’ snarled an angry, deep male voice” (49).
It is not Blatty’s mere use of personifications to indicate the presence of a Mind beyond nature and of a Creator transcendent to his creation that startles the reader, but the way that the author’s subjective descriptions appear in these passages of his novel, as if they are natural, normal, and expected parts of an otherwise objective depiction of a materialistic universe. One might expect such descriptions in the pantheistic or polytheistic writings of ancient storytellers, but they are more than surprising in the pages of a modern novelist’s novel; they are startling and astonishing, testifying of the omniscient narrator’s own apparent faith. For him, as, perhaps, for Blatty himself, there seems to be little doubt, despite all his characters’ doubts, that “the search for faith and the truths of the human condition” with which the novel is concerned will end triumphantly.