A Story of Salvation For Our Time in Stephen Dau’s The Book of Jonas
Stephen Dau's The Book of Jonas is a disturbing gospel for our time. It has simultaneously nothing and everything to do with religion; it can be read quite literally or allegorically, and it asks us to consider what it means to be saved. It's also very much a novel about war, and guilt, and remembrance. It's big.
Jonas, of the title, is a teenaged refugee from a war in an unnamed country that sure sounds like Afghanistan. He arrives in America, where he is mocked for his accent, and where he eventually creates his own community of outsiders who are trying to (re-)invent themselves: the "slanty-eyed and dark-skinned."
The Book, of the title, is the diary kept by Christopher Henderson, an apparently well-intentioned officer in this war. Christopher finds himself in an increasingly bad situation, with all the moral ambiguity one might expect from a long counterinsurgent effort. His haunting words come to us in italics, as if from a great distance, and it soon becomes clear that Christopher himself was among those listed as "Missing in Action" in this war.
Early in the story, we learn that Christopher saved Jonas after a bombing that destroyed the younger man's village. What happened after that is much more ambiguous, as may be true about all efforts to remember. As Rose, Christopher's mother, tries to learn more about her missing son, she and we are confronted with the difficulties of knowing: the government has one version of the events, or perhaps three; Jonas cannot, or will not, be a trusted narrator; and Christopher can only speak to us through a text.
Dau's descriptive language conveys a deep sense of the tragedy of war, but he is also aiming higher than that. The book, which loosely follows the flow of a Christian worship service, offers us a different take on Christ(opher), who is literally Jonas' savior. In this light, resurrection, repentance, and goodness are fluid, and piety for both Christians and Muslims is a questionable commodity.
In the Old Testament, it is prophesied that the Lord shall usher in a time of peace where "nation will not take up sword against nation," "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion … shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." In the diary, there is also a moving anecdote involving a lion and a gazelle at peace with each other. Unfortunately, as with the counterinsurgency, the best of intentions are sometimes not enough.