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Theo’s Odyssey: a rather tedious didactic novel on comparative religion

29 April 2015

Theo's OdysseyTheo’s Odyssey by Catherine Clément

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was billed as a Sophie’s world of spirituality, when we bought it so long ago that I could not remember. That’s probably why we bought it, because we had enjoyed reading Sophie’s world and thought we might enjoy this one, but I never got round to reading it.

Then with a cleanout and rearrangement of our bookshelves it came to light again, and I thought perhaps I’d better have another go at reading it.

The first chapter reminded me of why I had never got any further on the first attempt. Theo is a child. How old? About 6 or 7, I think. Later it turns out that he is 14. Describing a teenager as if he were a much younger child makes the character of the protagonist seem a bit shaky for a start. But this time I gritted my teeth and ploughed on. Theo does mature somewhat as the story progresses, but the first impression is off-putting.

Theo has a mysterious illness and though no one knows what it is, the prognosis is not good, so his rich (very rich) aunt decides to take him on a world tour, as a last fling before he dies, or a special treat in case he lives. But it’s not your average world tour, it’s a tour of different religions.

So it turns out to be a rather didactic book, teaching about different religions, and trying to sugar-coat the pill by wrapping it in a very thin and threadbare plot. Because the story needs to follow the syllabus, the plot line often seems very contrived.

It covers a fair variety of religions, and most of the way through it seems to lead one down the path of syncretism, showing how each religion incorporates elements of other religions, or has points of resemblance to other religions. This led me to expect that it would probably lead up to the most syncretistic religion of all, Baha’i, but somewhat surprisingly it doesn’t. I can’t recall that Baha’i is even mentioned once.

It covers most other major religious traditions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam (and returns in later chapters to deal with different aspects of them). It covers Indian religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. It deals with Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, Shinto, Chinese religion (Taoism, Confuscianism and ancestor veneration), African traditional religion, Brazilian syncretism and even Mormons. But not Baha’i.

I couldn’t help feeling that the treatment of some religions was rather distorted, with some trivial things included, and some important stuff left out.

Theo is half-Greek and so has an Orthodox grandmother (well, half-Orthodox, because she is syncretistic too, mixing Orthodoxy with faith in the Olympian gods). And the treatment of Orthodoxy is pretty skimpy, saying it is all about sorrow and suffering. There are detailed descriptions of rituals for some religions, at least three different rituals for the African traditional religions, but there is no comparable description of the rituals of Orthodox Christianity, not even a memorial service. All there is is a lot of guff about sorrow and suffering.

There seem to be similar gaps in the treatment of some of the other religions.

Sophie’s world works better as a kind of fictionalised exploration of philosophy, but Theo’s odyssey falls a bit flat. It doesn’t really work as fiction, and it doesn’t even succeed in its didactic purpose. When I was about the age of Theo in the book, I had a book called Faiths of many lands. It was a straightforward presentation, and I learned more from it than I did from this book.

At the same age I also read a work of fiction that told me far more about some religions than this one — Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It was aimed at promoting British Imperialism, but it had a better story line, and presented religions more interestingly too.

I found Theo’s odyssey rather tedious by comparison.

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