“But you worship money, Nate. You’re part of a culture where everything is measured by money. It’s a religion.”
“True. But sex is pretty important too.”
“Okay, money and sex. What else?”
“Fame. Everybody wants to be a celebrity.”
“It’s a sad culture. People live in a frenzy. They work all the time to make money to buy things to impress other people. They’re measured by what they own.”
This is part of a conversation between two characters, Nate and Rachel, in John Grisham’s novel, The Testament (1999). Rachel is a missionary in a remote part of a swampy land called Pantanal in Brazil. She was the illegitimate daughter of one of the richest men in the world, an American industrialist named Troy Phelan. But she had severed all links with her father (there was little more link than her name) after the death of her mother. She had even changed her name so that nobody would ever link her with Phelan.
One day Troy Phelan calls three psychiatrists to his 14-storey house and records on camera the interaction with them to prove that he was as sane as a man could be. Having proved his sanity, Phelan walks to the window and leaps to his death. He had prepared his will just before enacting the final drama. His entire property worth 11 billion dollars was bequeathed to Rachel though he had had three legal wives and six legitimate children. His wives and children were well provided for during his lifetime. His policy was to give 5 million dollars to each offspring the day he or she became 21 years old. Nothing more. They were to make their own life with that money. His wives were also given a huge sum each at the time of the divorce. None of them, however, knew how to use money properly. All of them squandered the money assuming that they would inherit huge sums when Phelan died. Knowing that his wives and children would only ruin his business empire, Phelan decided to bequeath it all to Rachel.
Nate, a lawyer, traces with much difficulty the whereabouts of Rachel. The 42 year-old missionary is not interested in the inheritance. She refuses to sign the legal papers and tells Nate that they could do whatever they wanted with the money. The novel tells the story of the legal battle that ensues. But the novel is more about money and its functions in human life than about legal niceties or subtleties.
Yesterday I attended what’s called a workshop in which many participants were of the opinion that success means acquiring immense wealth, important positions, and living in luxury and opulence. I articulated clearly that success for me had nothing to do with these things. Success is self-fulfilment, for me. And money, positions, and luxury have little to do with my dreams.
I am not at all religious like Rachel. I understand the importance of money in human life. Money is just a tool and has no meaning beyond what it can get me to live a reasonably comfortable life. Luxury and opulence appear vulgar to me. Positions are of no importance to me.
That’s why, perhaps, I liked Grisham’s novel. I would recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in contemplating the two absolutely opposed views about money: acquisitiveness versus renunciation. You may discover at which part of the spectrum you are at. I’m not saying that the novel is a profound work that takes the reader to sublime heights of contemplation. Far from it, it is a good thriller. But what to think while we read any book is up to us. And John Grisham is capable of tickling our potential for the sublime.