I’ve been meaning to write this for days now, but I was always too preoccupied or too tired or too busy fixing important (or sometimes just stupid, unnecessary or boring) things. My earlier post on this thriller with an anthroposophical theme — Souls of Terror — sparked an interesting discussion (read the comments!). It dawned on me that there are possibly a few anthroposophists (and maybe, too, some ardent waldorf proponents and other people in general) who have trouble understanding what fiction is and how it usually works, in particular when the theme of a fictional work is anthroposophy. It is, perhaps, too close to the heart. A commenter on this blog demanded of the author and practically everyone who enjoyed the book that they provide a clarification as to what’s fact and what’s fiction — in a work of fiction! It’s absurd, but perhaps to be expected, I don’t know.
It seems ridiculous to me that this should even be an issue; the book, albeit being — like all novels — inspired to some extent by real life, is so obviously a piece of fiction. That is, even though a lot of background facts and trivia, not to speak of environments and characters, are derived from other sources or inspired by reality, the plot itself is blatantly fictional, it is, in fact, highly unrealistic. If nothing else, the amount of goriness and bloodshed should clue even the most clueless reader in. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if some angry anthroposophists — especially those who cannot tell fictions from facts — will be hissing desperately. (Maybe they shouldn’t be reading fiction at all, unless it’s Steiner’s.)
Fiction or not, it isn’t exactly news that almost any teaching has the potential to become a threat in the hands of a fanatic or lunatic — perhaps this is particularly true for spiritual or religious teachings since these tend to breed zealotry and sometimes offer handy justifications for evil deeds. This isn’t any specifically anthroposophical issue though. Moreover, anthroposophy doesn’t offer that much in terms of justifications for heinous acts such as those described in the novel — that said, any doctrine of karma and reincarnation could be applied in this way. The fanatic who needs justifications, will make sure he finds them no matter where he looks. He’ll adjust or interpret any teaching in such a way as to advance his own objectives. Not to give too much of the book’s plot away, but this fictional minority faction of fanatical anthroposophists isn’t simply a threat to outsiders — their resentment is strongest, and perhaps most violent, toward other, more ‘reasonable’ (and non-murderous!) anthroposophists. The fact is that Karl, the leading character among the anthroposophists in the novel, has traits that are eerily familiar, even though they all never appear simultaneously in one individual and even though Karl’s (and his followers’) violent inclinations are, well, highly atypical. The waldorf teacher is also quite realistically depicted, as are her ideas and her manners; it’s just that she’s gone mad and is operating under the influence of Karl and his gang.
Souls of Terror is a page-turner. It may not be great literature, but it’s great fun and entertainment. This is, I’d say, not bad for a book in this genre, which honestly doesn’t interest me much otherwise. I can’t even tell how the book compares to other similar books, because I haven’t read them. I watched — or suffered through, more aptly put — The Da Vinci Code on TV. I tried reading the books by Baigent et alia. All of it bored me. And, quite frankly, I probably wouldn’t have considered reading this book, hadn’t it been for the fact that its topic revolves around anthroposophy. It’s because of this that the details and the intricate plot becomes entertaining.
Most of all I enjoyed and appreciated all these details and references. The gruesome plot — in which everybody is either murdered or nearly murdered (at least once each) — is perhaps typical for the genre, but easily turns slightly comical more than scary. I often found it humourous, which perhaps isn’t entirely the idea of a thriller, but I think my reaction has more to do with my unfamiliarity with the genre than with the book itself. As for the details, they were many and of all kinds; on the level of details, the novel is well-researched, and there’s where you have the basis in facts, though of course they have been adapted to and used to further the plot. I loved how the author lets the bluntest sceptic among the characters in the book drive a Porsche in Dornach. Of all cars, a Porsche. It is actually a great irony, a brilliant coincidence — yet it is not, because to follow the theme, it is all karmic, of course. She has a habit of speaking before thinking and enjoys the muffins in the Goetheanum cafeteria. She’s impulsive and brutally honest. Her less than positive views of anthroposophy are balanced, however, by the other characters in the book.
It isn’t surprising that anthroposophy — with its ideas, its organizations, its ‘power struggles’ and schisms, its attitude towards the outside world and towards its own dissidents — inspires a work such as the present one. The playful conspiracy angle isn’t surprising either; Steiner’s own occasional lapses into conspiracy thinking and the conspiracies thriving in certain subgroups of anthroposophy provide perfect inspiration. (For anyone wanting to explore this bizarre world, there are a couple of mailing lists of dubious quality…) The biggest risk is perhaps that this book will reinforce the (misguided) view some anthroposophists hold of anthroposophy/waldorf critics happily entertaining conspiracy theories, and now even propounding such theories in novels. However, this risk, once again, depends largely on the unfortunate tendency of some to take fiction for fact. One conspiracy theory which was created by an anthroposophist, for the purpose of attributing it to critics of waldorf education, features in the book, albeit in a different shape, which is a funny twist. (I’m talking about spooky stuff occurring in the basements of buildings on the Dornach hill.)
In short, I believe the book splendidly does what it intends to do: entertain the reader. To fit in all the details and conceive of the intricate plot is an impressive achievement. Its strengths lie in the playful use of anthroposophical notions and conceptions, in the authors knowledge about the topic — down to the details and trivia — and in his willingness to twist and turn things around freely for the sake of the plot, to borrow what he needs and invent the rest.