THE FIFTH SUN by Gaither Stewart
Punto Press, New York, December, 2013
Available at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.fr, Amazon.in (India) and other Amazon national sites.
Set in Italy and Mexico, The Fifth Sun, is a story of love and disenchantment, of belief and unbelief, adventure and romance. Above all, it is the story of the search of each of us for our real and better selves. The characters in The Fifth Sun are haunted by the Divine. All have a divine discontent which forces them to go beyond the role life seems to have assigned to them. And there is perhaps the key: the attempt to escape one’s destiny and create a new one. Published by Punto Press in New York in December 2013, the print version is distributed by Ingrams and available on Amazon and major book sellers throughout the world.
Gaither Stewart brings his adopted country, Italy, his native United States and, particularly, Mexico, contemporary but timeless, to vivid life. Through the convincing four major characters, plus a colourful canvas of secondary supporting characters, unique scenes and conversations, he conveys beliefs without boredom. The Fifth Sun is a wide-ranging novel of well-heeled characters who run risks to find how they should live their lives.
From among the numerous reviews of The Fifth Sun, we include here a most pertinent one by Paul Carline, “Freedom and Responsibility: The Challenge of Being Human.”
Freedom and Responsibility: The Challenge of Being Human
by Paul Carline
The Fifth Sun – an unusual title for this unusual, enthralling and deeply moving novel by Gaither Stewart, set in Italy and Mexico, two of the several countries in which Stewart has spent significant periods of time.
Stewart’s four main characters in The Fifth Sun are each, in their different ways, dissatisfied with modern life. Each of them searches for greater meaning and purpose in their lives – a search which leads them to make changes, reject their former lives and seek some kind of ‘salvation’, including also through sacrifice. Each person is of different origin and their quests take place against the backgrounds of Catholicism, traditional Mexican indigenous beliefs, agnosticism and atheism. Their individual searches begin in Italy and arrive at vastly different and unexpected outcomes in Mexico.
Mexican Diego, gay and at the beginning of the novel in the process of being confirmed – in St. Peter’s in Rome – as a priest in the Catholic church, comes from a rich and large aristocratic family, the de la Vega Salinas. His future has been mapped out for him by his grandfather: “Diego Fernando would be the family priest. The others were lawyers, doctors, bankers, industrialists. But Diego would be the guarantor of salvation for the entire family … a priest in the family would be redemptive for all”. Diego is confused, not only by his sexuality, but because from childhood he had been immersed in pre-Hispanic history and culture, the passion of his anthropologist grandfather – and yet it appears he is destined to serve the god of the Roman church: “The world of trinities still confused his mind and his spirit —on one side, Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl and on the other, the Church’s God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He read of the peregrinations of Saint Francis and simultaneously the stories of the Méxica heroes— the death of the last Aztec leader Cuauhtemoc and the man-god of light, Quetzalcoatl, for whose return they waited”.
Diego’s father was pro-Yankee, rejected traditional Mexican culture and for a time even admired Hitler. But lying on the cold marble of St. Peter’s, Diego “perceives in his groin the existence of another self. Under his Church habit lives a rebel”. Diego’s rebellion eventually takes him back to Mexico and to work in a slum, where he finds peace and fulfillment at last.
In Rome Diego meets and befriends the other main characters: Sarah, (with her mother Dorothy playing a minor role), the artist Michele and the bon vivant Robert Jay. Sarah loves Diego, Diego loves Michele, Michele loves Sarah. Robert Jay loves whoever is available.
Originally titled Walks of Dreams, The Fifth Sun actually predates Stewart’s major work – his political spy thriller “The Europe Trilogy” – of which the first two parts: The Trojan Spy and Lily Pad Roll have already been published by Punto Press, while the third, Time of Exile, is about to appear. The earlier work differs from the trilogy in being essentially apolitical, being more akin to Stewart’s rich collection of short stories, in which character and place are predominant – with the story line seemingly emerging from the characters themselves and their interactions, with the author being ‘merely’ an observer (but what an eye he has).
In the creation myths which were preserved by the Aztec and other Nahua peoples, the central belief was that there had been four worlds, or “Suns”, before the present universe. These earlier worlds and their inhabitants had been created, then destroyed, by the catastrophic actions of leading deities of the Aztec pantheon. The present world is the fifth sun, and the Aztec saw themselves as “the People of the Sun”, whose duty was to wage cosmic war in order to provide the sun-god with his tlaxcaltiliztli (“nourishment”). Without it, the sun would disappear from the heavens. Thus the welfare and the very survival of the universe depended upon the offerings of blood and hearts to the sun. Should these sacrifices cease, or should mankind fail to please the gods for any other reason, this fifth sun would go black, the world would be shattered by a catastrophic earthquake, and the Tzitzimitl (the stars) would slay the current sun-god Huitzilopochtli and all of humanity.
Similar traditional beliefs in a succession of ‘ages’ are found widely across the world – the four ages of man of classical Greek mythology, with the first ‘Golden Age’ of peace, harmony and prosperity being succeeded by progressively less perfect ages (Silver, Bronze, Heroic, Iron), the last-named being a period of ultimate decline. Analogous myths from the Vedic and Hindu cultures of southern Asia saw history as cyclical, made up of successive ages known as ‘yugas’, and with an alternation of ‘dark’ and ‘golden’ ages. The Kali yuga (Iron Age), Dwapara (Bronze Age), Treta yuga (Silver Age) and Satya yuga (Golden Age) correspond to the four Greek ages. Similar beliefs occur in the ancient Middle East and throughout the ancient world. They were also reintroduced – with modifications – into European culture in the 20th century through the teachings of the theosophical and anthroposophical movements.
Two concepts are fundamental in all these belief systems, even if in some the cycle merely repeats itself endlessly: that of development, change or evolution (whether at the individual or societal level); and that of the necessity of sacrifice (again, either personal or societal, or both) to achieve that evolution. No growth without change; no gain without pain. But in our modern world, real change has become unwelcome – the desire is for a continuation of the status quo, at least for those who are already comfortable.
Lines from Joni Mitchell’s classic “California” come to mind:
“Sitting in a park in Paris, France/ reading the news and it sure looks bad./ They won’t give peace a chance/ that was just a dream some of us had./Still a lot of lands to see/but I wouldn’t want to stay here/it’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here …”,
‘here’ being Europe. But hasn’t America, too, and most of the “developed” world, become “old and cold and settled in its ways” – in the ways of consumerism, of pseudo-democracy, and of neo-imperialistic warmongering? Didn’t the commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” inevitably induce a focus on self-gratification, on the accumulation of possessions and wealth, and a forgetfulness of the goal of personal and spiritual development which gave meaning to earlier cultures and which saved them from crass materialism (at least until their decline)?
However barbaric the practices of the ancient sun-worshippers now seem, there was meaning and purpose in the people’s lives. Their societies were well-organised and socially integrated – perhaps because there was not the sense of individual freedom which has been an essential part of the European heritage at least since the classical Greek time (hence the birth of democracy there). But freedom is a two-edged sword – a blessing and a curse – because with it come conscience and moral responsibility (a experiential reality, despite the attempt by philosophical materialism to deny this, as it denies meaning and purpose in the universe altogether).
Freedom and responsibility. The awful tension between them is experienced by each of the characters in The Fifth Sun. For three of them, there is a resolution. Stewart leaves the reader to ponder the fate of the fourth.
Mary Pishney in Denver, Colorado wrote:
Gaither Stewart, the author of The Trojan Spy andLily Pad Roll, which explore the world of international espionage, now with equal aplomb enters the world of spiritual conflict in his novel, The Fifth Sun, through characters and locales as diverse as the lost Aztec empire and the ethos of the Catholic church. Set in these parallel universes the characters struggle with eternal issues that are as intimate and relevant as each person’s own journey for truth. Set in exotic lands the earthly ambiance of the quest for spiritual serenity echoes with the passion as visceral and universal as sexual conquest and as infinite as the philosophy of the ages. In this uniquely vibrant story which immediately captures the reader, one finds echoes of his own conflict and search. The Fifth Sun is depicted with the sagacity of one who has traveled this path and gleaned from it the wisdom that marks this exceptional book.
Mary Pishney, Presidential Blue Ribbon Award Educator, and writer/ activist for exposing globalists’ cryptic agenda.
Henry Vermillon in Mexico wrote:
There are a number of novels set in Mexico by English-speaking writers which stick in my memory— those of D.H. Lawrence and Graham Greene come to mind. I read those before coming to live in Mexico some twenty years past. After living here some years, I had the opportunity to read The Fifth Sun in manuscript, and the scenes of Mexico in that novel remain in my head more vividly than any of the others.
Gaither Stewart’s scenes stay with the reader; they get under your skin. The opening of this wide ranging story puts us into the aching body of a young Mexican; he lies prostrate on the cold marble floor of St Peter’s basilica in Rome. He is being ordained a priest, and he is fighting his need to move his rumbling bowels: masterfully done. The section in which the foppish American writer Robert Jay loses his big sheep dogs to an unknown killer reminds of the death of the doctor’s dog in Kundera’s “Unbearable Lightness of Being”. To me, the most impressive and wrenching section takes place in one of the steaming underground worlds of make-shift shacks and ramshackle illegal homesteads in the heart of Mexico City. The young priest goes there to minister to the poor. I personally have knowledge of more than one of these “irregular” areas in that sprawling city: Stewart gets just right the claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense of lurking danger which permeates these places. I recommend it.
Henry Vermillion is an artist: painter, actor, and the former editor of an arts magazine. He has lived for decades in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico and knows intimately Mexico and much of Latin America.
Guillaume F. Rochat, art historian in New York, wrote:
Adventure, Philosophy, Sophistication and Politics, All ingredients for a spell binding story by a superb author.
Once again depending on his thorough knowledge of foreign lands having lived there personally, Gaither Stewart has woven a tale of personal intensity and deep awareness in his protagonists. It is again a book that carries you along with it like a singing and jumping mountain stream encountering unexpected turns and twists. Highly recommended to intuitive readers.
Based on the pre-publication manuscript, JP Miller interviewed the author, Gaither Stewart, for The Greanville Post in a wide-ranging discussion which we offer here in its original form.
Interview with Gaither Stewart about his new Novel: The Fifth Sun
by JP Miller
October 28, 2013
JPM: The Fifth Sun seems to be a literary departure for you. It is a very modern novel but at the same time there is something timeless about it. The action begins in Rome and moves to New York and Mexico City. After your work on the Europe trilogy, you have again gone back to America and its dichotomies. Did you have some unfinished business with your past that informed this new novel?
GS: I think that is partially right. I left Europe for Mexico in 1996 where I intended completing this novel which I’d begun in Rome. After 18 months in Mexico, my Italian wife and I decided to go to New York, where we had a small apartment and where we stayed for over two years. I claimed my intention was to “rediscover America” after many decades of absence. However, since most of our friends there were Italians I’d known in Italy and Russians I’d met in Rome after their exit from the USSR in the 1970s, I hardly met any real Americans or even spoke much English. When my wife threatened divorce if we didn’t return “home”, we went back to Rome without my rediscovering America … though I had completed much of the novel and written many short stories set in Mexico.
JPM: As a setting for the book, you talk about the Mesoamerican conception of The Fifth Sun as the final period of time after the four previous epochs have passed. Is this some kind of warning to the reader and the characters of the book? Does this aspect of accelerating time drive them to their outcomes?
GS: I don’t believe I had that thought in mind, but for people who constantly live with the idea that time can end at any moment, time must accelerate considerably. My characters were driven by their urge to realize themselves in one way or another and they agreed that ancient Mexico offered the place to accomplish this.
JPM: One political notion you entertain in The Fifth Sun is that of the huge divide between the ancient culture of Mexico and the newly formed USA. You refer to the Rio Grande as a division of not only space but also time. What does the book tell us about this division? And can you see a time in the future when the Indio cultures revive and the ancient practices are resurrected?
GS: Well, driving across the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas is an astounding experience. The moment your front wheels touch the Mexican side of the bridge, you feel you are in another world. Soon you wonder if you have moved back in time or if you are perhaps zipping ahead into an unknown future. You might recall the old Mexican saying, Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Los Estados Unidos. Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near The United States. Or you might think of the high “Wall of the Gringos” that the USA is completing to separate even more the two coutries sharing the same continent. Strange impressions! Many of the ancient practices of the indigenous peoples there are still alive and somehow integrated into Mexico’s Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquistadores. I note in the forward to this novel that “The Spanish liquidated the indigenous elite, but not the masses who in Spanish eyes were ‘saved’ by baptism.” Concerning the preservation of practices of the indigenous peoples, an Cora mystic once told me to remember that Mesoamerica has seen two millennia of civilizations that are not Western. There are remains from the year 200 of Teotihuacan, the first great city of the Americas. In every Mexican, he said, those pasts are present. Today, although the language and religion and political and cultural institutions of Mexico are Western, perhaps also because of the separation of the USA from Mexico, the watershed of Mexico seems to slope in another direction—toward that of its Indio past.”
JPM: Your depictions of gruesome ancient Aztec religious practices and the highly ritualized, often torturous, and suspect practices of the modern Catholic Church often parallel to one another in The Fifth Sun. Are you trying to tell the reader that there is no real difference between the two religious practices? Do we repeat the same myths, sacrifices, and delusions?
GS: History shows that Catholicism was no slouch when it came to torture. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, showed it’s mettle against so-called heretics, as did the Roman Church against the Cathars holed up in southern France. I don’t believe the Catholic Church had any ideas of saving the world as the Aztecs did, but of enforcing orthodoxy as they interpreted it and of course securing their own positions. To claim that such Aztec and Catholic rituals are often parallel would not be stretching historical realities. The Aztec ritual of human sacrifice was indeed gruesome, no matter whether the number of victims was in the hundreds, thousands or millions. Likewise, the estimates of the number of heretics executed by the Catholic Church, most frequently first tortured and then burned at the stake—practices most certainly more horrible than the Aztec ritual on the killing stones of their pyramids—vary from hundreds to thousands and even millions. Aztec human sacrifices were made to placate the gods and save the fifth world in which we still live. Catholic torture and burning alive was carried out in the name of purity of faith which damaged the image not only of the Catholic Church but of organized religions in general. From time to time the modern Church itself tries to come to terms with that past. Late last century Pope John Paul II uttered the famous words in this regard: “Forgive us, Lord. Never ever again.” The ritual of human sacrifice has been, as you say, repeated in many organized religions: Judaism sacrificed animals to placate their god, but according to Genesis, God called on Abraham to sacrifice his own son Isaac in order to test his loyalty, only to spare his life at the last moment, perhaps suggesting that the practice of human sacrifice was a possibility/probability.
I must have had in mind the idea of human sacrifice on the altar when I wrote the opening scene of The Fifth Sun in which I show the ceremony of the confirmation of the seminarian, Diego, spread-eagled on the marble floor of St. Peter’s in Rome. Yet reality shows us that such religious rituals and rites are as a rule deleterious despite, or perhaps because of, the intended test of “loyalty” or “faith”. I find it curious that politics and ideology likewise depend on rites and ritual to “bind” followers, calling to mind “the binding” of Isaac to the altar as an act of faith. Symbols, rites and rituals are of course powerful ideological phenomena that express political statements about oneself and the world as in Mexico’s indigenous Cora and Huichol peoples in the novel.
JPM: One of the themes that run through many of your books is displacement. In The Fifth Sun that theme is continued. The characters of Diego and Sarah both seem to be uprooted and distant from their beginnings or, perhaps, rather their natural place in the world. They are expatriates. Your own life is a story of moving from one place or tradition to another and looking back to write about it. You are an expatriate. Was it easier to write The Fifth Sun, and about past locales, at a distance?
GS: Yes, displacement is a major theme in most of my work. Every character is uprooted. Uprootedness and situatedness concern most everybody and I have never decided that one is better than the other. I have moved around quite a bit but not as much as it might seem–in my case different countries rather than different states.
JPM: You use the word expatriate, which is not one of my favorites.
GS: The word exists in my vocabulary chiefly in a negative sense. Somehow it smacks of specious romanticism. Uprooted from one’s origins, OK. I think it must be the bad taste the word ‘expat’ has left in my mouth from the time Americans arrived in, say, Paris, after WWI and hung around for some years because a dollar went a lot farther in Paris than in New York. But 99.9% of those expats in the end went back where they came from. This is not to say that most foreigners living in a different society than the one in which they grew up don’t remain foreigners. They do to a great extent. I don’t consider Diego and Sarah or the other uprooted characters in this novel as expatriates.
In general, I prefer to get down the story line and define the characters in my mind at least before leaving a place where my story is set. I wrote a lot of ASHEVILLE there but finished it in Rome … and the same for THE FIFTH SUN.
JPM: What is it about displacement that informs your work so well? Like Sarah and Diego, do you always yearn to be somewhere else? Like them, do you yearn to belong?
GS: Oh, yes, precisely. I love the places I have been. I have never seen a place — well, hardly — that I didn’t wonder how it would be to live there, and I continue to miss the best places I’ve known. As a rule I try to acclimatise myself as quickly as possible, learn as much of the language and culture as I can and then act as if I’d lived there forever. I want to belong, but in my heart I realize I do not.
JPM: While I have covered some similarities or recurrent themes in this interview, The Fifth Sun is different from your overtly politically themed and didactic books. Is this an indication of what we are to expect in the future? Have you mellowed? Have you gone back to Asheville?
GS: I don’t believe that is the case … that I have mellowed I mean. Most of my work has a political base because that is the way I think. And you are right; I do write didactic books. I suppose most novels are didactic in one way or another. They must be. Most certainly, the writer wants to remake the world. He wants to be useful. I personally want to see the heroic in a fictional hero. I don’t want lies but counsel on how to live better. On the other hand, to describe poor people as happy simply because they finally have shoes is nonsensical and the portrayal of the masses as happy because a new political party is in power is deceit. In the same fashion, I find the depiction of globalization as the spread of democracy, security, and wellbeing not only absurd, but immoral and evil. War is not peace. Disasters will always be disasters. And it is insane to call catastrophes victories for mankind.
It’s a question of balance between reality and fantasy in fiction. Some of my books, such as my Europe Trilogy consisting of the already published novels, The Trojan Spy and Lily Pad Roll, and Time of Exile yet to appear, are more heavily politically weighted. Yet Asheville, in which I had the idea of an attempt at coming to terms with the city where I grew up, also carries a greater political message than might seem apparent. For example, though that novel is more symbolic and personal at the same time, I also show the strategy of tension at work, the method by which political power uses fear to justify special laws of suppression and police oppression, and to keep people cowed and in line. The same in The Fifth Sun in which the former priest Diego finds his true calling and fulfillment in the worst shantytown of Mexico City which with his help becomes a lighthouse for the poorest of the indigenous peoples of the country. And not to be forgotten, both Michele and Sarah are communists.
JPM: Your character, Sarah, is a tragic figure and seems to represent the lost, new character of the US, looking for definition. Like Sarah, is the US a tragic character in the political and social world around us?
GS: It’s an interesting question. Sarah most certainly is a tragic figure (only by chance is she of American nationality). Abandoned by her father, but rich and spoiled, she is searching for something to believe in. She passes through various religions and people as well and she wants both her companion Michele and unobtainable Diego, but she finds only madness. So anyone who desires can trace out parallels with a tragic and lost America, alone in the world with only their Americanism and Exceptionalism to hang onto—whose people, however, are not even aware of the tragedy at work as Sarah is.
JPM: Your four main characters, Sarah, Diego, Michele and Robert Jay approach life from very different vantage points. But they seem to desire similar things, or rather desire hope itself, and at the same time desire to escape an ordinary life. Sarah notes that she would like to be possessed. Does Sarah simply search out love or does she want something more tangible to hold onto? Does she want to escape insanity or embrace it?
GS: Most definitely, you hit the nail on the head: after finding no satisfaction in the many directions she has tried, she wants to embrace her insanity and hold it as her own.
JPM: Although Diego stumbles along with faithless feelings, homosexual longings, and abandons the church, does he, ultimately, want faith, or a simple physical connection?
GS: Of course he yearns for the physical connection and the human love that he finds, but the other side of him wants to escape the Catholic Church and to truly do the world some good. He has to leave the Church in order to become a believer and a whole, independent person. I found it interesting that the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francesco, recently said that one can lead a Christian life without being as believer.
JPM: The other characters like Michele, Robert Jay and Diego are often caretakers of Sarah. Does this chore leave them out of any personal epiphany such as Sarah seems to experience in Mexico? Or does Sarah finally find only her madness?
GS: They each take care of Sarah, apparently the weakest of the four. Yet each of them encounters a certain epiphany: Michele as an aid to Diego in the Mexico City shantytown waiting for Sarah’s return; Diego in his dedication to the poor who still call him “Father” even though he has left the Church; and Robert Jay who finds love and a real cause to live for in his economic support of Diego’s crusade for the poor. And Sarah? Well, in her case we have to accept that she embraced her insanity as the most lucid act of her life.
JPM: Diego’s sexuality is confused by preference at times but clear in its intentions of release. Should Diego get condemnation, solace, or indifference for his sexual unions with young men? Is this a condemnation of the Catholic Church and its decadence?
GS: Diego in my mind is a living condemnation of the official Catholic Church. And he merits our greatest love and support for his ultimate rejection of that Church and his personal dedication to the poor, becoming a lighthouse for the poorest of the indigenous peoples of the country.
JPM: The alienation from life that your characters struggle with is a very strong statement and a continuation of postwar philosophy and literature. Did you consciously provide this existential conundrum for the reader? Is the disappearance of Sarah an analogy for the disappearance of all of us?
GS: You’re right to note the theme of alienation in my work, a theme reflected in the displacement we spoke of earlier. But I had no special analogies in mind with the disappearance of Sarah. And disappearance is the proper word, for we don’t know if she finds something, anything at all, in the jungle or if her search simply ends there.
JPM: Is the ceremony in Mexico where Sarah eats peyote a psychedelic experience that releases her madness? Or is what she experiences a revelation for her understanding of the ancient gods? Or both?
GS: I had in mind Sarah the person who had to investigate and taste all of life’s possibilities. Sarah, who speaks of “magic Mexico” and the triangle of bluish-black mountains filling the triangular plateau of Mesoamerica forming a gigantic pyramid surrounded by seas as “the top of the world”. Before going to the Indio festival she discussed the effects of peyote on a whole people of the Cora town, which at times seemed to interest her more than the possible effects on herself. Maybe that experience did in fact release her madness. For she was never the same afterwards. That was Sarah!
JPM: Finally, The Fifth Sun is truly a more commercial, mainstream work when compared with some previous novels. Was that your intention from the beginning?
GS: Not at all. Since this was my first attempt at a wide-ranging novel in places I knew rather well and with a canvas of complex characters, I simply wanted to write a good book.
JP Miller, who interviewed Gaither Stewart, is an author and journalist. Among his work is Born to Run which appears in the Southern Cross Review and The Deep Blue Goodbye which was published by The Literary Yard. His journalistic work appears in The Greanville Post, Cyrano’s Online Journal and Potent Magazine. He lives in Manteo, North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean.