Walk On, Bright Boy
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Walk On, Bright Boy
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Stephen Hunt creates illuminated sculptures out of found objects from discarded wood to old bricks and industrial items. Photo by Jennifer Reynolds. She pushed me toward art so I would be more well-rounded. I think it worked.
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You might think this is just another brick or some old piece of wood, but I would immediately envision what I would do with it. Instead, it was largely a political maneuver by Ferdinand V and Isabella to unify the disparate principalities of Spain and push the Ottoman Turks out of the southern regions. This medieval site of religious oppression and political expediency provides the setting of Charles Davis' haunting novel Walk On, Bright Boy, the story of a young boy's friendship with a Moor who is targeted by the Inquisition. In many ways a gothic novel, Walk On, Bright Boy narrates the moral bildungsroman of a nine-year-old Spaniard, whose horrifying encounters with humanity in the shape of the ruthless Inquisition, a xenophobic community, and a psychopathic tithe collector would seem reason to lose faith altogether.
But the novel is also an assertion of spirituality shaped by the traumas of childhood, a Moor's lessons in observing the world, Gnostic thought, and an education through the Catholic Church. The title of the novel is a translated phrase from a novel by medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufayl about a boy who grows up in isolation but discovers the same spiritual truths as the highest authorities in the world.
As the title suggests, the novel is about walking as a vehicle for seeing the world, thinking, becoming part of a landscape, even of narrating experience. From the Moor, the narrator learns the gift of walking in the mountains near their village: walking was a form of storytelling in itself, a way of finding your way through the world.
Walking is also an ecological act, for it is a literal engagement with a physical place. The landscape, the narrator says, breathes with the rhythm of your walking, as if conspiring with your progress to create a private perfection of harmony in which there are no barriers between you and the world.
Charles Davis' first novel reflects his own peripatetic travels far from his native England to Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, Spain, and France, and it explores the exhilarations and fears of the engagement with strange geographies and foreign cultures. Notwithstanding the use of ubiquitous Christian imagery, the prose is truly insightful, economical, and almost lyrical in its portrayal of the complexities of human action. A short narrative, Walk On, Bright Boy leaves the reader curious about the implied frame of the novel, a manuscript confession written for the Inquisition.
Despite its setting in medieval Spain, the novel speaks to contemporary collisions of political expediency and religious faith throughout the world. It is a reminder of the complexities of an individual's allegiance to religion, community, nation, and geographic place.
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Eloquent and elegant, with stunning metaphors and rhythmic cadences that alternate between short, declarative sentences that expand with ironic meaning and lyrical descriptions of nature that flesh out spiritual resonance, Walk On, Bright Boy invites reading out loud which in many ways is its literary heritage. Whoever you are, Charles Davis, keep at it a second novel, Walking the Dog is due out next year.
It's a good guess, however, that Walk On, Bright Boy a real occasion to use the overworked expression tour de force will remain unique.
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A suggestion: don't read it straight through. Take it, like good wine, slowly, savoring the taste of its descriptive prose. It is not to be rushed much like walking for pleasure. The experience, not the destination, is all. A second suggestion: if you happen to come across a so-called review of this book in Publishers Weekly toss it.
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An unnamed priest, having reached a powerful position in the Church, is dictating his life story to an amanuensis he will not identify, not knowing if his words will be read by the Lords of the Inquisition who will soon take his life. It's not that at 80 the priest has become a Gnostic: He has always been a skeptic of pomp and circumstance. He has never forgotten a traumatic event in his childhood that provided him with a touchstone of how to value truth, justice and beauty, an experience that is at the center of the novel.