I was first drawn to Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism (by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden) because of its title. Puppets? Religion? Italian names? It all sounded fun and vaguely creepy. Of course, the cover illustration of an angel with a demon looming behind didn’t hurt, especially with its beautiful combination of comic-book drawing style and religious iconography. As I flipped through the rest of the novella, I noted with regret that it was only sparsely illustrated in black and white, although these pictures too had their charm. But something else drew me in—the idea that puppets could be used to comment on free will in a religious context. In this, the book did not disappoint: as the jacket description hints, these puppets are not content to follow the dictates of their master. Yet even in the midst of their rebellion against their creator, we are led to ask—could they truly have done otherwise? Or was this simply in their nature?
I have read some reviews that criticize this novella for its uneven pacing. The buildup, they say, overwhelms the relatively terse climax. In some ways, this is true; we find out little of what happens to the characters in the aftermath. But in my view, the time spent getting to know those characters—Father Gaetano, Sister Victoria, Marcello, Sebastiano—is not wasted. Indeed, their struggles add to the book’s thematic exploration of faith and its loss, freedom and duty in a time of suffering. Should a man who entered the priesthood only to please his mother feel himself bound by his vow of celibacy? How can a child who has lost everything in the war love the god who allowed it to happen?
Beneath these questions lies one central quandary: if God made us, shaped our nature, then is it truly our fault that we rebel, or are we simply enacting that nature? Although I am an atheist, this question still fascinates me. It was fresh in my mind prior to reading Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism, thanks in large part to my friend Emily Atkinson’s work on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. This Renaissance drama, with the makings of a morality play but the shape of a tragedy, offers Faustus up as a hero of sorts, in spite of his obvious transgression of God’s law in summoning the demon Mephostophilis. Faustus sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for twenty-four years of delight, and although there are many points at which he tries to turn back, he proves unable to do so. As Emily points out, it seems that his very nature precludes true repentance: Faustus, whether he will or no, is bound to Hell.
In much the same way, Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism leads us to question to what extent these characters—and puppets—have control over their transgressions, and how much is dictated by the nature given them by their creator, their puppet-master. Why make humans capable of curiosity, rebelliousness, even brutality, if not to see them use those things? In supposedly giving us free will, God gave his puppets the means to cut their strings—and then expected them not to.
In my opinion, this lovely little book is at once an exploration of and a parable for post-war disillusionment with God. Its setting, Sicily in the months following World War II, allows for an unusual perspective on a place profoundly impacted by the war. As might be expected, the characters grapple with the brutality they have witnessed and wonder how a just God could allow such a thing. The puppets, too, struggle with their god. Father Gaetano makes puppets whose nature it is to fight with one another (David and Goliath); he makes one of unshakeable faith and loyalty (Noah), and another destined to lead a rebellion against his creator (Lucifer). Of all the puppets, it is only the clown Pagliaccio, never altered by Gaetano, who acts with both independence and integrity. The other puppets existed before, as well, but Gaetano has changed them, and they now view him as their god. Pagliaccio can see the man for what he is: a force for change, but no deity.
While Mignola and Golden’s book is not unequivocally atheist, in depicting a crisis of faith, it calls on readers to reexamine their own beliefs. All this, while maintaining a simple, enchanting style, and clocking in at less than 200 pages! My sense is that it would be as inviting for children as it is fascinating or adults. Although it poses some difficult questions, these are not heavy-handed, and one could easily read it simply for the satisfaction of the story. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism is not a great book, but it is a good one. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short, engaging read—possibly followed by a longer period of thought.
Atkinson, Emily. “‘Whither should I fly?’: The Limitations of Man, Magic, Language, and the Universe in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” BA honors thesis. Smith College, 2013.
Mignola, Mike and Christopher Golden. Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. Illustrated by Mike Mignola. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2012.