Per Olov Enquist's "Lewi's Journey" is called a novel but often reads more like nonfiction. It serves as a dual fictional biography of Lewi Pethrus...

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“Lewi’s Journey”

by Per Olov Enquist,

translated by Tiina Nunnally

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Overlook Duckworth,

464 pp., $26.95

Per Olov Enquist’s “Lewi’s Journey” is called a novel but often reads more like nonfiction. It serves as a dual fictional biography of Lewi Pethrus, the founder of the Swedish Pentecostal movement, and Sven Lidman, his compatriot and sometimes combatant. It relies on documents, interviews and history to provide a deft saga of spiritual discovery and betrayal, grounded in the development of a major world-wide religious community.

Enquist’s previous novel was the well-received “The Royal Physician’s Wife.” He also co-wrote the screenplay for the monumental film “Pelle The Conqueror.” In “Lewi’s Journey,” he examines the motivations and machinations of Pethrus and Lidman, “twins of God” whose church membership once peaked at more than 250 million.

Lewi’s journey of self-discovery begins in 1901, when he fashions himself as a “proletarian writer.” Sven fancies himself a poet and enjoys “small services” from Stockholm prostitutes in exchange for Thursday afternoon readings.

After Lewi is called to the preacherhood, he abandons his writing for the compilation of a “sin catalogue,” a group of rules or “Manners and Etiquette in the Pentecostal Life.” The two men’s lives converge in 1921 when Sven’s artistic genre becomes “storytelling as sermon” and Lewi is the leader of a congregation.

Enquist’s daunting challenge is to keep the stories of these two lives on parallel tracks and then detail the circumstances of their falling out in the “most scandalous dispute in the spiritual history of Sweden.” For the most part, he succeeds at conveying the weight of the historical nature of the union.

Often, however, history overburdens the fictional narrative and characterization collapses under the burden of actual facts. Therein lies the basic weakness of the “novel.” Translator Tiina Nunnally, formerly of Seattle, does her best, but only the most earnest of readers will want to stick it out through 464 pages which are ultimately more informative than they are enlightening or entertaining.