Life after death as the subject of a humorous, erudite novel

December 01, 1991|By Lynn Williams

MURTHER AND

WALKING SPIRITS.

Robertson Davies.

Viking.

357 pages. $21.95.

"Dead men tell no tales." Hah.

Dead men tell the best tales. Having experienced every person's ultimate tragedy, they are free to look back on the game of life with, if not a sense of humor, at least a sense of proportion. Initiates into the Final Mystery, they have an insight into human folly, the nature of love and, yes, the meaning of life, that living wordsmiths can only envy.

The problem is, the dead -- master storytellers every one -- can't tell us their tales. Except, perhaps, through such artistic "mediums" as Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist who has proven devilishly adept at piercing the veil that separates mundane reality from an Otherworld teeming with myth and archetype, saints and heroes.

The protagonist of "Murther and Walking Spirits" has just been murdered. The murder was absurd, the murderer a ninny. But Connor Gilmartin, the entertainment editor of a Canadian

newspaper, is dead just the same. He had just discovered his wife, a women's-issues columnist, in bed with the paper's womanizing film critic. But in this particular crime of passion, it is not the cuckolder but the cuckold who dies; the murder weapon is a bludgeon concealed in the critic's favorite sartorial affectation, an antique walking stick.

Gilmartin, more astonished than indignant to find himself dead, spends the first few days of his afterlife following his wife (who is coolly planning on turning her "bereavement" into a book contract), shadowing his murderer (for whom he plans a suitable revenge, but what?) and sitting in on his own funeral.

These somewhat farcical scenes are only the beginning, the new-made ghost realizes. From his after-hours metaphysical discussions with the paper's religion editor, he knows about the Bardo -- as the Tibetans call the transitional period between death and rebirth -- and about the Bhagavad-Gita's contention that after death one attains the state thought about immediately before death.

In Gil's case, the Bhagavad-Gita was right. Just before he died, he had been thinking about a coming film festival in Toronto. Soon after, he finds himself an unseen, and unwilling, audience member at the festival; can Hell mean an eternity of going to the movies with his murderer?

The movies he finds himself watching, though, bear only a superficial resemblance to those seen by the rest of the audience. His personal Bardo festival stars none other than his own ancestors, living out their rags-to-riches-to-ruin sagas in revolutionary-era New York, 18th century Wales and 19th and 20th century Canada. As he experiences their dramas and dreams, the worldly Gilmartin is unexpectedly moved. He, who had never paid much attention to family, recognizes the hero's journey each one had undergone, and finally can see something splendid in their unimportant lives. And in his.

"Murther and Walking Spirits" takes its title from Samuel Butler's comment on the tastes of 17th century readers: "Where Murthers and Walking Spirits meet, there is no other Narrative can come near it." We certainly share our forebears' tastes for murders and ghosts, and thanks to the recent high profile enjoyed by the work of Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly, with their emphasis on personal myth and rites of passage, readers are more likely than ever to be plugged into Mr. Davies' sensibilities.

Admittedly, "Murther" takes a bit more getting into than many of his books. I was so intrigued by Gilmartin's wry comments on being dead that it was somewhat irritating to be thrust backward 200 years to mingle with his ancestors, however well-drawn their adventures.

But as the story takes shape, and we realize what the novelist is up to, it's easy to give ourselves over to his characteristic humor, wisdom and erudition, and the elegant ease of his prose.

Ms. Williams is a writer for The Sun.

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