Wednesday, April 26, 2017


The Delight of Being Ordinary: A Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama
A Novel, by Roland Merullo

A few pages into The Delight of Being Ordinary I collapsed in a fit of nearly uncontrollable giggles. They were triggered in part by the situation with which Roland Merullo opens his novel (this is fiction, remember): Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama secretly escape from the holy confines of the Vatican through an ancient underground tunnel leading to the Castel Sant’Angelo; and in part by the slyly spot-on portrayal of the two religious leaders. In particular—and I think this was what set me off—Merullo perfectly captures the idiosyncratic English speech patterns of the Dalai Lama, reflecting the Buddhist leader’s peculiar innocence, his wonder, and simplicity. And His Holiness’s giggles, too.

Things were mostly a bit less hilarious from there on, but there were some great absurdist moments along the way—many of them having to do with the measures required to maintain the anonymity of two of the most famous faces in the world. The escapade is organized and guided, at the Pope’s insistence, by his cousin and chief aide, Paolo, who calls on the expertise of his never-quite-ex wife, Rosa, an exuberant Neapolitan who has made a fortune from a hair-styling and make-up service for Italy’s celebrities.

Disguised as a foreign tourist (the Pope), a rock star (the Dalai Lama) and a dark-skinned immigrant from the Middle East (Paolo), the four set out on their tour of the beautifully evoked Italian landscape and its hillside villages and cities. Throughout, the famous tourists manage to elude discovery—despite the ostentatious Maserati that Rosa has managed to borrow from one of her wealthy clients. Only at journey’s end do we discover that the two holy men were inspired by an inner call more mysterious and profound than the simple whim to indulge in “the delight of being ordinary.” But… no spoiler, I!

It all sounds improbable, right? Yet Merullo manages to pull it off, dancing nimbly through a succession of unlikely situations, from the Pope insisting on inviting a gaudy roadside prostitute for breakfast to a night at a costume extravaganza set in the palatial home of an aging movie star. Worthy of Fellini at his most freakish, the scene rapidly disintegrates into a full-blown orgy.  Behind this high comedy, though, lurks a more serious purpose—or, actually, a handful of them: a satirical critique of contemporary culture and its materialistic values; a study of the complexity of
marital relationships; the constantly shifting ground between reality and illusion, between the sometimes dreary practical necessities of the daily grind and the lures of mystery, magic, and the imagination; and, most particularly, the place and nature of spiritual values in the contemporary world.

Throughout, the ghostly, ghastly figure of Benito Mussolini haunts the tale, in painful national and personal memory. He appears in Paolo’s family history as well as in the disquieting, recurrent dreams of the (fictional) Pope and, eventually in the actual village where the dictator was finally hunted down and executed. He represents the spirit of greed, excess, and inhumanity that continues to pollute our world today, in contrast with the spirit of profound humanity personified by the two spiritual leaders. The infamous fascist leader represents, too, the iron fist of control, whose inner grip the narrator, Paolo, comes to acknowledge as the debilitating factor in his life as he evolves into the unsuspected protagonist of his own tale. In what turns out to have been Paolo’s journey of self-discovery, the two spiritual leaders are not the guided, as he thought all along, but in fact the guides. To his surprise, Paolo finds in himself the cause of his own suffering—and in the end, the glimmerings, at least, of liberation.

Merullo’s book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one that constantly surprises us, not only with its lively narrative twists and turns, but also with its moments of true wisdom and compassionate insight into the human condition along the way.

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