Father Malecki

(creator: Ben Pastor)

Ben Pastor
Father Malecki is a tough, weight-lifting, 56-year-old Jesuit priest from Chicago who finds himself in Cracow (Krakow) in Poland when Germany invades the country in 1939. The son of Polish parents, he is "deep shouldered, big footed, with wide freckled hands and extremely lively, clear eyes. His neck .... emerged from the Roman collar as a powerful bundle of muscles, like the neck of a wrestler. The combination of his alert glance and strong frame recalled the pictures of warring peasant saints, cross in one hand and sword in the other."

Ben Pastor (real name: Maria Verbena Volpi, 1950 - ) was born in Rome where she was awarded a degree in archaeology. She became an associate professor of graduate studies at Norwich University, and the author of historical novels as well as numerous short stories and academic articles. Lumen was the first of a series featuring German officer Martin Bora, inspired by the real-life Claus von Stauffenberg who led the assassination attempt on Hitler. She subsequently launched a series about Aelius Spartianus, a Roman soldier at the time of Diocletian. She lives in North Central Vermont with her husband and daughter.

Lumen (1999)
Lumen is set in German-occupied Poland from October 1939 to January 1940. Father Malecki had been sent to Cracow to investigate the claims of a supposed saint, Mother Kazimierza, but, when she is shot dead, finds himself having to collaborate with German Intelligence officer Captain Martin Bora, who used to be a Catholic, and who has been assigned to the murder investigation. The two men earn the grudging respect of each other as, despite all their differences, they find they share a burning desire for justice. It is Martin Bora who is the main character and who does all the actual investigation, but Father Malecki is able to give him the clue that confirms that he is on the right track.

Lumen was the code name assigned to the investigation file as it was the first word in Mother Kazimierza's motto: Lumen Christi Adiuva Nos (Light of Christ, succor us). And light, or its absence, is at the heart of the story. Father Malecki remembers Mother Kazimierza's favorite words: "But if the light in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness." And he realised that "The mystery of what lumen meant might very well be a light shining through the dark of unsolved crime and unspoken hostility .... If no solution ever came, he'd learned meanwhile how much there was to nuns, to saints, to patriots, and to German officers."

As Father Malecki tells the local Archbishop, Martin Bora is "a young doctor of philosophy from Leipzig. A professional soldier, he says, but by far more accessible than the rest. He won't give in on matters of security, still I believe I can at least speak with him." However, Father Malecki promises not to befriend him: "With God's help I will only do what is good for the Church and the memory of the abbess". But, as America is not yet in the war, he hopes that he can act as an effective intermediary "to try it to get to the bottom of this unhappy case". In the end, both Martin Bora and Father Malecki can agree that "There are times when one must defy orthodoxy".The author herself has explained that "Malecki is the alter ego of Bora, and - in a sense - the opposite is also true."

It makes an arresting story, with its all too convincing picture of violence-torn Poland and the horrors of the times. You really start to care about what happens to the characters, ranging from the German Colonel Hofer who comes to rely on Mother Kazimierza's prayers to save the life of his dying young son, to the Polish villagers slaughtered for what seems to Martin Bora to be no real reason. And there is the chilling Colonel Schenk, much preoccupied with the desirability of high sperm counts and the need to father a pure Aryan race: "This is no time to be romantic about reproduction. Love, sentimentalism - those bourgeois luxuries are not for the German man of today."

But the author is not on quite so sure a ground when she is trying to describe Martin Bora's sexual frustration as he drove away from an aborted sexual encounter: "Blood tided and banged in his throat, his veins. He didn't dare touch any part of his body, afraid to precipitate an orgasm. Like fire, with a cresting ache, need made him sweat despite the cold of the car until he was wet beneath his shirt, trying to breathe in and out when his lungs wanted to stop air in his throat. His jaw set hard. Eyes closed, he pulled back on the seat. Carefully, he thought, but with the motion of the cloth of his breeches fretted the skin of knees and thighs up the painful, engorged cluster of his groin. Breathing became short, difficult. Bora kept his hands contracted on the steering wheel. Still, arms and shoulders began bracing, locking stiff each muscle, each joint, so that he trembled with the excess of tension and in the end had to suffer the great craving to break through him. He fought to keep from crying out when it flooded his groin as if life's dam were yawning open to pour out of him in jolts, and have to disgorging itself he'd have no life left, a sweet, sweet dying."

It sounds like an entry for the UK's annual Bad Sex in Fiction award for the year's worst erotic writing - but fortunately is not at all typical of the book as a whole, for Bora's gradual realisation of what is really going on under the German Occupation carries conviction, and interest is held throughout.

There is an odd but interesting Italian Wikipedia site about the author, with some useful links, which you can get translated into English (of a sort) by Google. To get the translation, look it up in Google, and choose translate.

Used copies of the book are available but they can be expensive.

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The cover cannot be described as very enticing, but it is an interesting story.
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