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'The Prodigal Priest' needn't bother returning

On the surface, André Costa’s The Prodigal Priest follows the African adventure of Father David Callaghan, a man of the robe who may have lost his faith. In fact, we are led through pages of Costa’s own philosophy, a social criticism of modern life and its spirituality, or lack thereof.

Following the added losses of his mentor, his mother, and his best friend (and first, never explored, love), and burdened with his own sense of inadequacy, Father Callaghan decides to go on a sabbatical. Drawn to the idea of finding prelapsarian innocence among the San people of the Kalahari, thus understanding how humans fell from grace, he decides to join an anthropological team in Namibia. There, he is enthralled by the notion of an ego-less society, as well as by the people he meets, most notably Marie, a sexually-active Finnish scientist; and Jack, a self-taught, ex-seminarian anthropologist. Cue in many introspective philosophical conversations on humanity, human evolution, the role of religion, and the decay of human values. Also, expect a cursory experience of San life, alongside poaching, sex, socioeconomic depression, interracial relationships, murder, surviving an accident-the desert-a violent night ambush.

The title gives the ending away, to be honest, leaving the reader no less baffled than the good son in the parable is by his father’s favouritism. Then again, it may have been intended to do so. The Prodigal Priest brings to mind the film ‘The Man from Earth’, with its flurry of ideas, lack of cohesion, as well as the underdeveloped moments of action.

Who will enjoy this

In style, Costa’s work may appeal to lovers of Stream of Consciousness literature. Its perpetual search of human truths through dialogue is slow, inciting more questions than presenting actions. More so, the language aims for erudition, requiring further thought.

Similarly, it could resonate with those disenchanted with modern culture. Its exaltation of the past cultures, of the dangers of the individualistic ego in a materialist society, matched by Callaghan’s increasing despair, provide a soothing mirror to those searching.

Who should give this a pass

The Prodigal Priest is not a book of action; thus, it will fail to engage the interest, let alone the sympathy, of any reader expecting such delivered. Moreover, it does not explore the San, the Kalahari, or the ancient survival skills in any fashion, despite introducing them.

On the other hand, it is not a sound philosophical, theological, scientific, etc. text, either. Anyone with a medium-to-strong background knowledge on any of the fields touched will be left dissatisfied, even frustrated. In the same vein, any reader with sensitivity to projects of colonial benefactor spirit will find this tome a trigger.

Conclusions and suggestions

I do not recommend this book. André Costa’s The Prodigal Priest is an exercise in missionary pontification disguised as a journey into the depths of human interaction. It might make an alright indie film, as noted above, but as a book, it is sorely lacking.

Costa has clearly great knowledge, with which he peppers the tale. Most of that information given is irrelevant though (see the explanation of Herero clothing, or traditional Gaelic dishes), yet he leaves out much of what would actually be useful to understand the realities David Callaghan encounters in Namibia. Obviously, he aims at biasing the readers’ perspectives, glossing over the difficult issues (such as merely mentioning the political interracial and intertribal tensions) while promoting a paternalistic influence on the ‘natives’ (forcing the San back in time, away from modern conveniences such as medicine or higher education). This agenda is neither subtle, nor commendable.

Added to this, there is great imbalance between action and reflection, to the detriment of both. If a work requires action, this should be given enough weight, presence and progression. If it is a tome on introspection, then no action should be present to break it, except as anecdotal recollection. Costa seems unaware of this simple rule, introducing events he is unable, or unwilling to properly present, develop, and close. These situations, which meagre as they are seem quite promising, rather than help the rest of the book, simply show up the rest as meaningless filler.

This book could be salvaged, but it would require a lot of trimming of dialogues, and a lot more writing to flesh out the events – the actual turning points in character development. Which leads me to remind the author/reader that

- Structure is there for a reason. Apply it generously. It is either a novel, or a dissertation.

- Every element in a book should fulfill a purpose in its whole. Mere decoration to show off knowledge detracts from that unity.

- Respect the elements included. Give them the proper weight and developmental space to fully blossom intro meaningfulness.

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