The Liar’s Gospel
Sometimes you wonder, as with Murakami, whether you are reading sci-fi or have entered into an alternative reality which has just tweaked this one a little and set it on its side. So it was here with this strange and uneven reimagining of the relationship between Jerusalem and Rome in the years around the time of Jesus – there were moments when this novel felt like a profound immersion into first century Palestine and times when it seemed to be describing a sister planet glimpsed through battered and tarnished silver. There were also moments – for example a fleeting reference to cooking with tomatoes some centuries before they were brought to the Middle East – which jarred me into wondering if this wasn’t some clever sci-fi allegory.
But it is not, and that instance with the tomatoes has been graciously admitted by the author to be an unfortunate error which slipped through the checking process. Instead we have four viewpoints – four un-Gospels – of first century Palestinian life which dance with the life of one Yehoshuah/Jesus. There is Miryam/Mary, mother to the benighted son; Iehuda/Judas, the friend who became disillusioned; Caiaphas, High Priest of the Temple and Bar-Avo/Barabbas, the bandit/freedom fighter. Hanging the pegs of her story (as many preachers do) on a very few passages from the canonical Gospels as well as the works of Josephus allows her great freedom to enable these characters to twist radically away from tradition. With Judas, Caiaphas and Barabbas this breathes stinking, reeking, retching life into the politics of occupation and it gives space and reason for doubt and conviction to become so co-mingled as to be indistinguishable, it lets personality, with all its myriad deformities, animate the previously flaccid forms of pantomime baddies, bringing them far closer to our own complex frailty.
There is not much about Mary in the Gospels, but what there is has been used very selectively. Gone is Luke’s reworking of Hannah’s Song into the Magnificat which sets the agenda for her son’s mission. Gone is the pondering in her heart of what Jesus has said and is up to – not entirely vanished, but reduced from spiritual thought to wondering how mad he is and how much dishonour he will bring upon the family. Gone is the Mary who stood at the place of execution and watched her firstborn die. She is a mother struggling to bring up a family without husband or eldest son and so she is at times angry, at times mourning, but mainly bent on survival. Fair enough, a good starting place, but there is much more to Mary than that – her relationship with her errant son just seems a little blank, not enough anger, not enough mourning, not enough pondering on what he did and said and might have been. Perhaps this is because Jesus is himself almost an un-character, too much on the periphery, too much of a growling, gabbling, lunatic obverse to the Victorian Sunday School image of the meek and mild, white skinned, blue eyed deferential teacher. Of course that is a stereotype which needs overturning – but such anger, such madness? I might recognise it in myself, but in Jesus? Yes, there is anger in him – at the cruelty, selfishness, oppressiveness and obduracy of humanity and yes there is a focus on God’s will (which he may or may not see clearly) which could be seen to be obsessional, but to portray him as a dribbling, raving, madman feels like a reverse caricature which spoils the impact of the book. He is a ghost at the party, but one which is only seen fleetingly and in less than one dimension. Which is a shame, because in the dust coated, entrail soaked body of the book there is a physicality of place, of time and of mind-set which could vividly have put him and his teachings in context. The Jesus of history should have been grounded in the flesh and blood of his era and given the opportunity for his life to be seen as part of that particular parade of events. Instead he is neither in the world nor of it.
I was enjoying the tumble and the challenge of this book until I reached the epilogue, when a clumsy authorial voice attempted to explain too much and in the process reduced the whole text to another example of Christ denying. Of course the idea that the Gospels contain lies is a tough one for orthodox Christians to take on board. But then much Biblical criticism of the last two hundred years has been working in a similar way – unpicking the historical truths from the literary or spiritual ones – and then reworking the threads to build up a more nuanced image of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. When Alderman describes finding that her grandfather had underlined the same passages as her in Josephus, the ones relating to Jesus, I hoped that they were both questioning the veracity of these lines which many scholars believe to be later additions by Christian scribes, as this would seem to be her liar’s gospel in action. Then I remembered that Josephus himself was not an impartial witness because, like Judas in the book, he was telling the stories of his Jewish people to his Graeco-Roman masters so as to entertain them, to allow them to be sympathetic towards the Jews but to ultimately let them feel secure in their own ascendancy. Perhaps the problem is that Alderman has inserted a Western, post Reformation, post enlightenment view of truth and reality into first century Palestine. Really I don’t think the epilogue was necessary, it spoilt the book.
Finally, though, I was left pondering on the circularity of history. Just as the Romans crushed the Jews, who needled and pushed and rebelled and fought, and just as neither side would ever stand back and see the world through the other’s eyes so we have the same situation in the same land today. Except that now it is the Jewish people who are reacting with crushing might to the cries, the stones, the rockets and the rhetoric of the occupied Palestinian people. Naomi Alderman flags up ‘love your enemies’ as one of the few original sayings of Jesus. As she points out, if this radical message had really been taken on board then perhaps the world would truly be a very different place and the spittle of her mad Yehoshuah flecking the stones of the Temple would have been justified.