A coterie of Anglican nuns comes to a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, school, and hospital for the improvement and benefit of the natives. Instead of making any impression at all on the villagers, the nuns themselves are changed and brought to confront their deepest fears, desires, and inadequacies.
Simple enough to summarize, the novel can be read as simple and somewhat simplistic. When confronted by the great and inscrutable Mysteries of the East, Western Christian minds can only choose to give in and “go native” or be broken by the weight of all that cumulative Eastern wisdom. This truism would probably satisfy many readers of Godden’s novel.
However, it doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t really believe that a “bend or be broken” moral was all that Ms. Godden meant to convey in this novel either. The following conversation between Sister Adela and a Hindu prince that she is tutoring is key:
“Pantheism?” he cried, writing it down delightedly. “And that? How do you spell it and what is it?”
“Saying that God is in everything, animate and inanimate, in the trees and stones and streams.”
“That sounds very beautiful,” he said thoughtfully, “but it certainly isn’t true.”
Sister Adela was surprised. “Why are you so sure?” she asked.
“Because,” he said, “we can conquer trees and streams and stones; we can cut down the forest and dam the stream and break up the stones, but we can’t conquer God.”
“Now he,” he said pointing with his pen, “might very well be in the mountain. We call it Kanchenjungha, and we believe that God is there. No one can conquer that mountain, and they never will. Men can’t conquer God; they only go mad for the love of Him.”
Ms. Godden isn’t advocating mountain worship any more than the psalmist was: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” Rather, the mountain is a symbol, a picture, of the invincibility and yes, the inscrutability of God Himself. When we come face to face with the Eternal we can either give up or go mad. When we recognize our own insignificance and inability to be anything, we can repent and be still or run screaming off the cliff. Job or Job’s wife?
There’s a movie version of Black Naricissus with Deborah Kerr as Mother Superior Clodagh. I’ll probably check it out even though I fear it may be a disappointment. Hollywood isn’t known for making deeply meaningful and subtle spiritual films.