Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.
Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.
In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.
There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.
The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.