Trouble in Paradise by Pierre Boulle (Vanguard: $12.95; 188 pp.)


The Madonna--the original, that is--holds center stage in this theological fantasy by the author of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Planet of the Apes.” Unlike his enormously popular other works, “Trouble in Paradise” bases its moral appeal not on man at his elemental best or worst but from the top down. It’s a kind of an ultimate “upstairs-downstairs” story. At a seance in Paris, attended by a famed astrophysicist, a society maven, a priest, a minister and the president of France, the Holy Spirit speaks. We learn of a crisis in Paradise: The Father is humiliated and depressed by the rebellious defection of the Son, who, thanks to all the attention he has received on Earth for 2,000 years, fancies himself the Supreme Being. The resulting power struggle has disrupted the harmony in heaven. In short order, the Blessed Virgin manifests herself and begins a new career on Earth, designed to heal the celestial split.

Mary “Queen,” as she is called, quickly gains acceptance and sponsorship in the inner circles of French high society. The French president installs her as prime minister. A new cult of Mary sweeps the nation, and her popularity leads her to run for president. One never doubts throughout that heaven and Earth and all in between will be reconciled, amid fluttering angels and seraphim. A few chords of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” if you please. At its heart, the story implies a kind of mirror relationship between venal deities and events on Earth. The turmoil is over the nature of the Holy Trinity itself, and we must endure, in honest-to-God panel-discussion format, the various arguments on the subject put forward by eminent theologians, mystics, Communists, scientists and so forth.

The columnist William F. Buckley has observed that there’s nothing like introducing the subject of religion to bring a contemporary dinner-party conversation to an abrupt halt. As this novel stumbles from fantasy to treatise, one can understand why. This is a short story that got way out of hand. “Trouble in Paradise” portrays a monumental clash in the heavens, but as fiction, it falls crashing down to Earth.