A couple of times in The Sparrow, Russell makes reference to the Runa's fear and awe of thunder, and its function in Runa society. Page 324 is a good example, as that's where Emilio spells out the use of the thunderstorm as a means of social control among the Runa: don't make a fierno, Runa parents tell their children, or you'll attract a thunderstorm. There's a whole social ethic compressed into that one little phrase, and it is easy to imagine the devastating impact of such parental advice on any Runa who did manage to get any ideas about competition or combat into her or his head.

I want to connect the thunder reference to another of the novel's central themes: that one cannot understand what one has not experienced. Emilio continually tells his inquisitors that they don't just fail to understand, but that they can't understand what he went through; they lack, as it were, the raw experiential basis that might make the words sensible. Hence he can't simply tell them what took place, and he has to lead them through the process so that perhaps, just perhaps, they can experience a little bit of his utter disillusionment and loss of faith. The words occupy a subordinate role to the experience; their efficacy is sharply limited by the experiences out of which they arise.

The connection to thunder is simply that the Runa's world is as rooted in experience as Emilio's is (and perhaps as all of our worlds are?). A threat of "thunder" makes sense to a Runa child because thunderstorms are both frightening and frequent; the experience of raw terror at the sound and light from the sky lends credence, and power, to the words, and it's that power and credence that underpins the social sanction. Similarly, Emilio's wrenching indictment of God on p. 394 only really makes sense in the light of his experience of feeling chosen, divinely guided, prepared for an ultimate communion . . . and then viciously raped. Experience, wordless and potent, supports and gives rise to the mere words that cannot possibly express it fully.

That said, there's a certain irony in the fact that we're getting all of this from a novel, a fictional work where no living person's actual experiences are in play. How successful is Russell at portraying those experiences that none of us -- even her -- could possibly have had? In what way might words about things not experienced make sense to us? Is there some "thunder," some raw experience, forming a common ground between ourselves and Emilio (or between us and the Runa? between us and Supaari?) and thus giving rise to the possibility of communication?

No comments: