Melmoth by Sarah Perry is a tale of moral complexity related to the human condition. Perry’s book draws upon Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Robert Maturin written in 1820 which once was a well-read book with a greater significance.
Perry retells the legend of Melmoth, the loneliest being in this world who wanders across the times and places to lure away the ones who committed the acts of an unconceivable cruelty to wander alongside her for eternity. The guilty who are followed by Melmoth must make a choice between being led into the darkness or living with what they have done or what their actions led to.
The main protagonist of Perry’s book, Helen Franklin, an English woman living in Prague comes into possession of a mysterious manuscript containing testimonies from people who witnessed Melmoth, a tall, silent woman in black. These are all stories from the darkest chapters of human history. While Helen is reading the stories in the manuscript, she has the feelings of being watched. As the book progresses, we find out more about Helen’s past and why Melmoth might want to seek her…
There are many references to the worst atrocities in the human history: the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, wars, acid burning, and the list goes on. What Melmoth points out is that the real horror is the horror of humanity which is non-supernatural inflicted by humans on each other.
Melmoth by Perry puts an emphasis on the ordinariness of the people responsible for the worst atrocities in the history. Often the ones responsible do not think that the outcomes of their actions lead to the worst acts of cruelty.
Sarah Perry in her book reminds us about the importance of witnessing, thinking about the consequences of our acts, regardless of how mundane they appear to be. There is a reference to the Armenian genocide where the people responsible for the atrocity were not only the ones who did the killings but also administrators who passed the orders, implemented policies that led to the genocide of the Armenian population.
The lesson arising from this book is that people do not learn from the past – we do seem to repeat the same mistakes that led to the atrocious acts throughout the history. Melmoth sheds the light on the significance of thinking for yourself, of not following the authority blindly. In order to prevent any future horrors regardless if it is of a scale of the Holocaust or Armenian Genocide, or an individual act, one must understand the importance of questioning the authority and questioning our own deeds and actions.
This book is also an ode to the city of Prague, beautiful and magical, somehow craved out of the pages of a fairy tale. On the other hand, it is the city which witnessed the darkest chapters in the human history. It can be also understood as everything and everyone has two sides: good and evil with shades of grey in between. It is reminiscent of the words by Solzhenitsyn: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts”.
There are a lot of mixed reviews of Melmoth by Sarah Perry. It is crucial to know the events that Perry refers in order to understand the meaning of this book. I would recommend Melmoth to everyone interested in the subject of the division between good and evil, not in terms of supernatural setting, but in a ‘real’ world – our world. I would also refer you to Confessions by Jaume Cabre which you might find of an interest.
There is a lot of beautiful, exquisite writing in Melmoth and the subject itself which is being explored in the book seems to be more important than ever. By referring to the atrocities in different places and throughout different times, Perry draws our attention to the fact the horror that we – humans are capable of inflicting on each other does not discriminate – it is universal, it does not need the help of supernatural powers and it can impact everyone regardless of the times and places they live in.