Extract from ‘Goodness’


My father was a missionary murdered in Burundi in 1956. It was very much his own fault. He had been warned to leave and by not doing so he risked getting the rest of us killed too. When we were captured in our white mission bungalow, my mother, my sister and I were given the choice of dying with him or of saying some simple formula that renounced our faith, after which we would be allowed to leave the country. I was too young of course either to have a faith or to renounce it, thought I don’t doubt what my decision would have been. My mother on the other hand was torn. She’s a superstitious woman and believes in the power of words spoken even when not meant, the kind of person who would feel guilty at discovering that the phrase she had innocently repeated in some foreign language was blasphemy. Even today she wonders if she won’t be punished for all eternity for having responded to her maternal instinct and saved both herself and us.

It’s curious thinking about this now. Presumably a shot rang out and dispatched my father. I don’t remember, I was too small. I haven’t the slightest memory either of him or of Africa. If I think of his martyrdom at all it is with total incomprehension. And I mention the grotesque affair now it is only because over the years I have come to see it as just the first, the most absurdly emblematic of a long series of incidents in which other people’s pretensions to goodness were to clash, to my considerable detriment, with the most naked common sense.

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