Angel of the Danube
Alan Rex Mitchell
Cedar Fort, 2000. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $12.95 (US) 1998 AML Award: Marilyn Brown Novel Award
Angel of the Danube is the story of a recently returned missionary,Barry Monroe, who wanders about Southern California without much directionafter serving a mission to Austria. An encounter with a Mormon patriarchin the Mojave Desert inspires Monroe to finish his missionary journal andhe begins to recall his former life of service for the Church of JesusChrist of Latter-day Saints.
The first part of the novel relates the friendship between Elder Monroeand his Canadian companion, Vidic, whom he calls "Unts." Together theymeet a woman several years older than they, Anna Magdalena, who tells themthe story of the angel of the Danube, in which an angel warns thefishermen of the ancient Danube of a disastrous flood. This story presentsto Elder Monroe a spiritual parallel to the Mormon worldview. Deeplymoved, the protagonist replenishes his spiritual powers for the Sisyphiantask of converting the Austrians, who, for their part, show littleinterest in his message, and when they do, they fall away very quickly.Once he is transferred to Vienna, however, the prophetic vision seemsdampened. Elder Monroe becomes district leader for a group of young men,whose missionary life resembles more college-age Angst than the spiritualpurity of church service. Indeed, described in laid-back California lingothe Vienna mission appears a life more realist than idealist, one repletewith pranks, laziness, pinball playing, opera-going and manic propheticgrandstanding.
Where Angel of the Danube takes a few daring plunges in itsrepresentation of missionary everydayness, it remains nevertheless a verytraditional coming of age and religious odyssey story. Most importantly,Angel holds fast to its vision of faith. Doubt looms large in theendless gray of Vienna, with its baroque melancholy and strange, sometimesdebauched customs. Will the Book of Mormon ever be a big seller inAustria, where new wine is the main crop in the hilly countryside, RomanCatholicism, practiced or not, appears an inexorable destiny, and Fasching(carnival) lets everything all hang out? Probably not. Daunted by thisreality, the young dirt-biker-dude-missionary still manages to reachpeople and sometimes share moments of religious epiphany. Were ElderMonroe's epiphanies not the best writing in the novel, such steadfastspirituality in the face of disappointment could have seemed trite, likethe formulaic cant of the overly assured. This is not the case, due to theoriginality and genuine emotion of the epiphanies. Most are inspired byencounters with Austrian folklore, like the story of the angel of theDanube. Folkish figures from Charlemagne to a stone fox filled with goldprovide an opportunity for Elder Monroe to extrapolate the meaning ofhumanity in God's universe. No less moving for him is his (slightly racy)visit to the opera with two Austrian girls, in which his attentions arefocused less on his women escorts than on the spirit that inhabits thesoprano's singing.
Of course women aren't far from Elder Monroe's imagination as hestruggles to remain chaste and begin to contemplate his future. Infact, it's his consternation over relationships that leaves him dazedand confused upon return to California. As Monroe begins to drift athome he uncovers the essential dilemma of modern life: its fundamentalfailure to bring meaning to the life of the individual. Faced withoptions that look deadening from all sides, transforming hismissionary skills into empty salesmanship like a former acquaintance,bumming on the beach with surfers and freaks, mastering some pitifulniche like the UCLA professor whom he visits, or passing out at rockconcerts like his babe of date -- Monroe begins to feel lost. Such abenumbed life is not merely senseless and squalid, it's disenchanted,and the only thing that will "re-enchant" it, so to speak, is faith,that, and love.
In the end, Elder Monroe finds both. And yet, this is where Angel of theDanube gets a little shaky as well. At the very moment Elder Monroe andhis newly discovered beloved are confessing their love for each other, thedialogue stumbles into somewhat stilted discussion of the church. Surely,the young and faithful would express their love as a shared religiouscommitment, but the dialogue here is clunky rather than warm-hearted andpersonal. There are a couple other minor bumps in the beginning andpenultimate moments. But happily, Angel of the Danube succeeds with aconvincing and touching final image that entwines the folklore thread witha larger message of love. It's a great book. Unpretentious, funny andmoving. I recommend it not only for missionaries returned from Vienna, butalso for those interested in Austria from a unique perspective and thosecurious about the spiritual journey of a young Mormon missionary.
© 2001 Ruth Starkman