(New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2010)
Thomas E. Kennedy dedicates In the Company of Angels to “those who have endured what I can scarcely begin to imagine; and for those that will not be indifferent.” Torture—the unspeakable pain and fear suffered by victims of brutality and violence—is the subject of his novel.
A master of inhabiting the interior lives of his characters, Kennedy bears witness to the physical and psychological pain endured by survivors of torture, aggression, and abuse and uncovers the fear hidden within those who commit these atrocities. His unique emotional perspective draws from a vast library of cultural references including literature, music, art, history, politics, and psychology.
The protagonist, Nardo Greene, is a Chilean citizen and teacher who is arrested by the Pinochet regime for teaching his students the poems of Domingo Gómez Rojas. (Rojas, a political activist, was arrested by the Chilean government during “the trial of subversives” in 1920. He died at a young age while in police custody.)
Nardo is beaten at the police station, imprisoned and tortured. In the depths of his suffering he is visited by angels who momentarily transport him outside the prison walls as a vision and promise of freedom. The angels, however, must return Nardo to his cell, as his day of deliverance is yet to come.
Kennedy’s scenes and images are gut-wrenching for their frank detail. Describing his breaking point in prison, Nardo says,
They bring in a little girl. She is five, six, perhaps. She is naked. Then they bring in the mother. She is pregnant. She is naked. The little girl tries to run to her, but the yellow tweed suit holds her back. He caresses her black hair. Mustache is holding a piece of cable. He says to the woman, “If you cry out, we whip your daughter, too. Simple. You decide.” Frog-eyes steps across and takes the little girl by the hand. He watches me. “This is your show, Greenebag,” he says. “Here we have a piece of paper for you to sign. The paper says merely that you wish us to stop doing this. Sign and we stop at once.”
Nardo is eventually released from prison. His wife and child are desaparecido, disappeared. Broken in body and spirit, on the verge of psychological collapse, he flees Chile for Copenhagen where he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his family and imprisonment.
It is Kennedy’s wonderful ability to create images of human grace, dignity, strength and compassion within this landscape of overwhelming cruelty that provides the book’s most moving sections.
While at a cafe in Copenhagen, Nardo becomes drawn to a woman with “eyes like blue fire.” Her name, he later learns, is Michela. Ultimately, she is his move toward inner freedom as foretold by the angels.
Michela and Nardo have led different lives yet they share the same source of pain: male aggression and violence. Michela has fled from her abusive husband, Mads, and is now in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Voss, who is nine years her junior. “Why do men hit me?” she asks herself. Her tyrannical father verbally abuses her from his deathbed, and she has lost her mother to dementia. Voss belittles Michela and explodes with rage as he descends into perversion and drunken madness. She grieves over the death of her child years earlier.
But despite her difficult life, Michela’s retains the ability “to believe in goodness, to nourish it as one can, to hold it gently.” Michela speaks to the hope Kennedy places in all women and their power to nurture and protect humanity from its own evils.
Michela reaches beyond her fears of violence and abuse to get inside the heart of Nardo’s anger. He screams, “Go away! Do you not see? I have nothing for you!” She responds, “No. I won’t. Not like this.”
Michela becomes a force for restoring Nardo’s dignity and sense of self. At Nardo’s weakest moment, Michela tells him, “You are a man . . . . You are a man for me. You are strong. So strong.” She is his champion who “touched his broken face with love.”
As Nardo and Michela begin to reclaim the lost and shattered pieces of the other, Kennedy writes, “Now they turned back upon themselves and made of this moment something worthier. For it was precisely what they had been in each other’s arms—he had been a man for her and she a woman for him, and that was so now and could not be undone by the past and was perhaps even more so because of the past, his and hers. All mistakes, pain, stupidity, injustice, preparing them to become something new together, something more certain and genuine.”
Words, both written and spoken, provide a path towards healing, redemption, and salvation. Michela shares the sorrow of her daughter’s death with Nardo. It is the first time she speaks of her pain and she begins to feel release. Nardo gives voice to his suffering and tells her of his imprisonment and the story of the angels who visited him. His story awakens Michela to her inner strength and powers of insight: “it made sense to her suddenly, Mads and Voss and the violence they let loose on her. It was not her weakness, it was theirs.”
There are very few places to rest in this book, and Kennedy persistently keeps his readers off-kilter. The visitation of Nardo’s angels is described in terrifying terms. When Voss becomes fearful of his own thoughts and actions and cries out for help, it implicates the reader in sympathy, belying any certainty about who is the true enemy. As an American, it’s impossible to read this story without thinking of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the secret operations in other countries, those who told us America does not torture and those who believed it. “We are all to blame,” Michela says, echoing Nardo’s words.
There’s nothing easy or comfortable about In the Company of Angels. He makes us aware of our fragile hold on goodness and the courage, compassion, and determination of those who risk all to try and undo the damage. In the Company of Angels will move readers to action.
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Andrew McKay‘s review of In the Company of Angels originally appeared in TLR’s Spring 2010 issue, How To Read Music.