“Song of George: Portrait of an Unlikely Holy Man” is not a novel…it’s pure Art. This intense, unusual story contains original prose, poetry, song lyrics and artwork, all welded together by a thread of human suffering reminiscent of the great Russian authors such as Dostoevksy.
Although they are very different stories, at times the struggles and comradeship of George’s disciples reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” with its portrayal of just how much anguish humanity can endure despite enormous odds, for “We lay like scattered bones on the floor of her lair, mother earth some, broken splintered things, white against the dirt, the pain is gone.”
In “Song of George” much of the suffering comes from in the treatment of the inmates by the guards, but even more comes from their supposed distorted realities. One of the major themes in this nuanced novel is the exploration of how one defines madness (is George mad or is he a visionary? And who is to decide which he is?)
When you pick up this book, expect a challenging read in more ways than one: dense with characters, packed with philosophy and resonating with compassion, “Song of George” forces the reader to examine different realities through the lives, minds and experiences of three students interviewing (mainly) numerous inmates in a prison mental institution.
Despite the need to concentrate hard, the pace of the story is fast and the author’s portrayal of his multitude of characters is simply superb. Each character is unique and fascinating, even the less appealing ones such as Jaiden. The author’s compassion and understanding for those of us classified as “insane” clearly runs deep.
Throughout the book I felt I was reading profound truths about life. From the suggestion of reincarnation (in Toby’s story) to a conversation about “low burning fires” the student Jeff eavesdropped on, the themes of this immense novel are shrouded in a sense of futility and despair at the ugliness of a world that denies ultimate truths in favour of modern commercialisation, materialism and alienation. When George was freed on parole, the collapse of the inmates’ fragile serenity at the loss of their holy man, is symbolic of the apocalyptic threat to humanity facing us as we turn away from the universal language of Love and a spiritual path.
And yet this was an uplifting story. The glimpses of hope were there: Harold/Horatio’s relationship with his sister Illy, who believed in him against all reason, ultimately becoming his safe haven, almost a “reward” for his innocence despite all that had been done to him. The final scene, despite the ambiguity of the closing paragraphs, also suggests that all hope is not lost when the little girl on the stoop shames the boys tormenting George into helping him.
With its weighty philosophical nature, this novel needs more than one reading to be fully appreciated. Like all good novels that endure, each reading of “Song of George” will, I’m sure, raise more questions and offer new spiritual insights for its readers.