23/01/2014

Portofino (by Frank Schaeffer)

Although I moved in evangelical circles in the UK as a teenager and young adult, I was never part of the Calvinist or fundamentalist scene; I barely knew people with these beliefs existed until perhaps twenty-five years ago. However, I do remember reading a couple of light Christian books by the late Francis Schaeffer, which I quite enjoyed. So when there was some controversy in the news about his son Frank Schaeffer, I was somewhat interested; apparently he rejected his parents' views (and the US 'religious right') and joined the Greek Orthodox Church in 1990.

So I was intrigued to come across a fictional trilogy by the younger Schaeffer, which reviewers are almost unanimous in agreeing are at least somewhat autobiographical. The first of these is 'Portofino', a book which appears to be either loved or hated by the majority. I found an inexpensive edition on play.com, so bought it, wanting to find out more. I read it primarily out of curiosity; and I found myself right in the middle of the extremes of opinion.

The story is set in the early 1960s, narrated by Calvin, who is ten at the start of the book. The family is from the US, but the parents are missionaries working in Switzerland - fundamentalist reformed Protestant ones who want to convert the Catholics. Calvin has two older sisters: the angry and somewhat brutal Janet, and the milder, compliant (and sometimes passive aggressive) Rachael. Each year the family travels by train to the little Italian seaside resort of Portofino for a holiday. The novel takes place over three different holidays - the second is when Calvin is 14 and going through puberty.

The descriptions of Portofino are realistic and evocative, and I appreciated the caricatured but loving pictures drawn of some of the characters: the boat owners, the hotel staff, a friendly artist.. it seems pretty clear that these must have been real, affectionate memories from the author's childhood. Calvin has a lot of freedom in the novel, despite having very controlling parents, and seems surprisingly normal, given his strict and often violent upbringing.

Some of the narrator's thought-processes are humorously logical; there's a lot of clever irony as the 11-year-old protagonist - whose name is itself an irony - quotes his parents' fundamentalist beliefs, and wonders about the logic of a theory of 'election of saints' which doesn't guarantee anyone salvation, and makes something of a mockery of the whole idea of evangelism. I found myself mildly amused a few times, sometimes against my better judgement, although I did have a problem believing that anyone could have such distorted and often cruel beliefs. I hope they were caricatured.

And yet, as we gradually become aware, there is a lot of tension in the family in private. Calvin's father is subject to bad moods when he can turn violent, and his mother keeps trying to talk about inappropriate subjects to her children - when she's not praying long and embarrassing monologues in the hope of converting her listeners. Calvin's oldest sister Janet is a self-righteous bully who can be quite vicious at times, and Rachael is a holier-than-thou sneak. Calvin himself keeps resorting to lies - to stay out of trouble at home, and so that his local friends don't think him too weird.

At times, the narrative was highly disturbing. The description of the killing and eating of an octopus made me feel quite ill, and the violent 'punishments' described were unbelievable in their viciousness. I hope that the horrors of a fundamentalist Calvinist upbringing are exaggerated; even without the violence and verbal abuse, the hypocrisy shown is horrendous.

I have no axe to grind: I'm not American, not fundamentalist, and do not believe in violence of any kind. Perhaps that's why, to me, this was essentially quite a mediocre book; I didn't love it, nor did I hate it. It was an interesting read - and by the last few chapters I found it quite hard to put down. And yet... it left something of an unpleasant taste in my mouth. If even half of the violence is honestly true, why fictionalise it? If it's not true, why exaggerate, and paint Calvinist missionaries in such a poor light?

I don't plan on getting hold of the sequels.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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