Convictions of Faith is an historical novel by R. S. Basi, set in the Kongo Empire in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The novel tells the story of Dona Beatriz, or Kimpa Vita, a young girl born into a relatively well-to-do family who after a transcendent, near death or at least unresponsive period, awakes convinced she is the conduit through which St. Anthony speaks to the world.
Initially born with heightened powers of perception and empathy, Kimpa Vita’s parents debate her role in the world.
“Fumu, a man made astute in social interaction by his constant soldiering, thought his daughter unusually perceptive and intuitive, but nothing more. ‘Charm and empathy,’ he observed on one occasion after returning from a nearly month-long absence. ‘Having lost the assertiveness of her youth, I see her studying the behavior of those around her. She is developing intuition.’”
Her mother, however, sees Kimpa Vita as possessed of more than mere intuition.
“’Her social prowess and frequent visions of the afterlife are a bridge to the simbi,’ she told Fumu. ‘Her silence is something spiritual you and I are not capable of comprehending. We are not equipped to help her develop this gift.’
“’If, as you say, our daughter is interested in helping others, she must have an invitation and initiation into the Kimpasi,’ declared Manoka. ‘Where she can help many people at once.’”
And so her parents come to believe and support Kimpa Vita’s role as an nganga or spiritual healer.
Time passes and Kimpa Vita does indeed become the spiritual healer that her parents hope her to be, but there remains a longing in her heart for more.
“’I wonder does God know us, Father?’ confessed Kimpa Vita, sensing that she could speak frankly without fear or judgment. It was a more direct version of the same question she asked of nearly every man of faith with whom she had the opportunity to speak. ‘And do we see ourselves in him?’”
Kimpa Vita’s spiritual searching reaches its conclusion when she slips into a catatonic state for several days, during which her parents make peace with her inevitable death. Instead of death however, she awakes convinced that she experienced a vision during which she has met St. Anthony who now speaks to the Kongo Empire through her.
The novel weaves a palpable tension between the belief of Kimpa Vita that she is St. Anthony incarnate and her own doubts about the veracity of this audacious claim. Even as her parents and others around her become convinced of this claim, we experience both Kimpa Vita’s growing self-doubts, but also her own powerlessness against the wave of supporters that push her claims and her stated calling to unify the warring kingdoms of the Kongo region.
Parallel stories of the Capuchin Fr. Bernardo and the Kongo King Pedro serve to build the tension and, as Kimpa Vita’s followers and message reach a fever pitch, collide in a painful ending as faith, power, and control are pushed to their breaking points.
“’The church fears Kimpa Vita and a unified Kongo because they would allow us to operate independent of Portugal! The church holds power over us because they can use God as the final answer whenever we question motives…This is a matter of power and, specifically, wealth. Let us not obfuscate that truth.’”
Ultimately this story ends in the same way so many others have. Quickly, unmercifully, and at the hands of those with the wealth and power.
I enjoyed the novel and had not heard of the story of Kimpa Vita before reading it. Indeed, I was half through the book before I discovered that it was based on true events. The novel also does a good job illustrating the push-pull nature of indigenous royalty and the Church’s missionaries; something that has occurred many, many times this world over. Many passages are well written and characters are well developed, some to an extraordinary degree. Fr. Bernardo was one I particularly enjoyed reading. However, at other times large blocks of time, years in some cases, pass with little acknowledgment or explanation. This can cause the novel to be choppy at times.
Note: I was provided a copy of this book for the purposes of this review. Still, if I didn’t like the book, I never would have reviewed it. Promise.
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