Book review: The Delight of Being Ordinary by Roland Merullo
Missing and believed kidnapped by the Mafia, two of the world's most recognisable holy men embark on a secret, impromptu road trip across the appealing Italian countryside in a delightfully whimsical novel from acclaimed American author Roland Merullo.
Featuring the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis clad in outlandish disguises, doggedly evading the police and the world’s Press as they speed across Italy in a highly conspicuous lime green Maserati with racing stripes, the highly entertaining The Delight of Being Ordinary offers up a most original and inspired partnership.
Best known for his popular novel Breakfast with Buddha, which spawned two follow-ups, Merullo’s latest on-the-road adventure is very much in keeping with his other notable spiritual novels.
Narrated by Paolo de Padova, beloved cousin to His Holiness the Pope of Rome and widely disliked by his jealous colleagues in the Vatican because he is the Pope’s ‘closest friend and advisor,’ Paolo has been charged with an unenviable task.
The Pope, keen to escape his ‘constrained’ environment for a short while to explore his beautiful country and ‘try to understand what God is whispering in his ear,’ has asked him to arrange an unofficial vacation for him without his bodyguards or the travel office knowing about it.
With the Dalai Lama about to visit Rome in a few days’ time, Paolo jokingly suggests that maybe the famous Buddhist should come along too. Regretting having declined to meet with him a year earlier, in an effort to placate the Chinese government, the Pope is very enthusiastic about the idea.
Likewise, the Dalai Lama, a man of adventure who once crossed the Himalayas on a donkey ‘dressed as a soldier and then as a peasant’ in order to escape the Chinese, carries similar feelings of constraint and is equally excited to join the Pope on a four-day road trip.
Enlisting the help of his beautiful, estranged wife Rosa, owner of a successful chain of hair and beauty shops, Paolo sneaks the famous men through a network of secret tunnels beneath the Vatican to an awaiting sports car which Rosa has borrowed from one of her wealthy celebrity friends. They are then whisked away to a beauty parlour in order to disguise their unmistakable faces and journey across the country incognito.
Dressed in expensive loafers, a blue suit with a sparkling gold tie, a blond wig, goatee beard and moustache, the Pope is transformed into ‘a businessman down from Frankfurt ready to work a deal.’
With his shaggy brown wig and ridiculously oversized designer sunglasses, the Dalai Lama winds up looking like a rock star while Paolo resembles a ‘slightly nicer-looking Muammar Gaddafi doppelgänger,’ a look that will earn him a good deal of disapproving remarks from locals.
Once back on the road, the uninhibited Rosa, reckless behind the wheel and unafraid to speak her mind, adds spice to the proceedings by challenging their religious beliefs and instigating lively conversations about sex, procreation, celibacy and birth control. Unlike Paolo, who is embarrassed by her frank, awkward questions, the Pope and the Dalai Lama welcome her perspective on things and find her to be ‘a woman of substantial charm.’
What follows is a captivating, enlightening, and rewarding voyage across Italy, with the quartet visiting locations scarred by tragedy, pausing to attend a ball, pray with a shepherd and break bread with a prostitute. The two men are also called on to embrace their own fears – the Pope has his ski lift to conquer and the Dalai Lama his swimming pool.
What begins as a vacation or an escape soon becomes a journey with a spiritual purpose as the characters realise that there are people and places they need to see, and things about themselves they must learn.
The charismatic cast, deft humour, thoughtful introspection and uplifting passages make The Delight of Being Ordinary a highly gratifying, extraordinary slice of divine fiction. A journey to savour.
(Alfred A. Knopf, hardback, £23.99)