Iris Murdoch: The Message to the Planet (review)

If you saw someone perform something that seemed to be a miracle, would you believe it to be a miracle or would you try to find some rational way of explaining it? When days, weeks, months had passed, would you still be convinced you had seen a miracle or would you instead think that you must have been mistaken?

Patrick is dying. He has been sick for a very long time and now, the doctors have given up on him. He is lying in Jack and Franca’s house and Franca is taking care of him while trying to come to terms with the new woman in her and Jack’s life. But more on that later. Patrick is sick because he has been cursed. By Marcus, an old … friend.

Ludens, another one of this group of friends, have taken it upon himself to find Marcus. He was always very impressed with Marcus and luckily, he’s able to locate him. When he visits him, Marcus and his daughter Irina are living in a small cottage and Irina is more than willing to leave the place. Marcus comes, sees – and he brings Patrick back from the (almost) dead.

Or does he? Even though a lot of this group of friend saw him do it, they are not all sure about what they really saw – or what he did. Did he cure a physical disease? Or did Patrick so firmly believe that Marcus had cursed him, that he almost died from this belief and did Marcus lift the curse and thereby bring Patrick back to life?

Afterwards, Ludens goes to live with Marcus and Irina and desperately tries to grasp what Marcus thinks because he is convinced that Marcus has found a great truth. He begins a relationship with Irina but is constantly struggling with finding his place. The other main storyline is focusing on Franca’s marriage to Jack and his insistence on having affairs with other women – and finally, on actually marrying one of these other women while stile retaining his relationship with Franca.

It feels strange trying to sum up this book by talking about what happens. Because that’s not really what’s important. At least not for the most part. Towards the end, it does become somewhat important but for most of the book, the talks and discussions between the characters are what matters. How they react to events, what they think and feel, why they feel compelled to do certain things – not what really happens.
And then again. This is a strange book, hard to come quite to terms with. It’s definitely not a book where everything is tied up neatly with a pretty bow. You are somewhat left to decide what really happened – and what will happen. Did Marcus really bring back Patrick from the dead? What will happen with Jack and Franca? How will Ludens go on?
And what about Irina? Irina is a character who I never really got a hold on. The entire novel through, she confused me. I never really knew what she really felt and wanted. After finishing the novel, I’m still a bit confused about her. And that fascinates me. I’m still pondering why she made the choices she did – and that’s a big compliment to Murdoch’s writing. She lets her characters live on even after the book is closed, by not concluding their lives but by leaving it open-ended.

Overall, this is a book about relations. Relationships not only between lovers or married couples but also between friends. How far do you wish to let yourself be pushed by the one you love? How much will you accept? All the characters in the book are searching for some king of meaning, for love, for faith – and they are all unsure about what to do. And the book is like this too. There’s no easy answers and even though it does come to a very satisfactory, you are still left with questions. As you are in life.

Iris Murdoch was a British author and philosopher. She wrote her novels in longhand – and they are printed as is, without being edited! She wrote both non-fiction and fiction but her fiction is heavily influenced by her philosophical thinking – which for me makes it even more interesting. With her focus on the importance of inner life on moral action, it is clear why she – at least in this novel – chooses to focus so intensely on the thoughts and feelings and not so much on the actions. As she does in this novel, she apparently often writes about intellectual men caught in moral dilemmas and about enigmatic male characters, who swipes other people along with them and convinces them of the truth of things – even though this might not actually be true. Jack is such a person. Charismatic, artist, persuasive. Marcus, although powerful, seems to be more just swept along of events, searching so after some kind of meaning that everything else fades – with Ludens at his side as a eager puppy, desperately trying to grasp the meaning of what Marcus says and does, and through that get a sense of meaning in the world and his life.

Although I really felt for Franca and her attempts to continue to love her husband no matter what, even when he wants to live in a committed menage a trois relationship with her and another woman, Ludens and his struggle to find meaning in the world by both listening to Marcus and persuading Marcus to think and talk and by his relationship with Irina, is the tragic hero of the novel. A man lost without past, a confusing present that constantly leaves him frustrated and without a sense of direction for his future. And yet, he has to go on.

I guess that’s how it is for all of us. That we each have to find our own meaning in life, our own purpose. And just go on.

  • Title: The Message to the Planet
  • Author: Iris Murdoch
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Year: 1989
  • Pages: 563 pages
  • Source: Borrowed from my friend Henrik
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5
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