MAYBE it is because there is not one but four accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament (let alone the many more, much odder, later apocryphal versions) that so many fiction writers aspire to write the Fifth Gospel.
The Liars’ Gospel
In recent years there have been versions by Philip Pullman, Anne Rice, Michel Faber, Michèle Roberts, CK Stead and Jim Crace; those old enemies Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal tried their hands at it (with The Gospel According To The Son and Live From Golgotha), and writers of the stature of José Saramago, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikos Katzanakis, Jorge Luis Borges, DH Lawrence, Anthony Burgess and Robert Graves all succumbed to the lure. Even John Milton put words into the mouth of Jesus in Paradise Regained.
All of which is a circumlocutory way of saying that Naomi Alderman is not the first, nor in all probability will she be the last, to reinterpret the life of Jesus. That she has managed to do so, for the most part, in an original way is a major achievement. The first twinkle of her clever approach is the correctly placed apostrophe in the title. Here are a different four lives which intersect with that of “Yehoshuah the Teacher” – that of his mother, Miryam; the traitor amongst his disciples, Iehuda of Qeriot; his judge among the religious authorities, the Cohen Gadol Caiaphas; and the man for whom the crowds asked when Pilate offered one or the other to be freed, Bar-Avo. Each one of them admits to being a liar. Take all this on mistrust, the book demands.
Returning the names to their less anglicised versions is a tidy device to distance them from the accretions of years of history, myth, legend and sermon that now surround them. Alderman creates her own convincing versions. Miryam can barely bear to hear her son’s name, and has been divorced by her husband for loving him too much; she is grieving and angry, since one scene is almost entirely intact from the original.
As St Matthew has it, “Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to them, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”
Caiaphas is not the conniving villain and original deicide, but a conflicted man, more concerned with relations to the Romans and preserving Judaism within the Empire than with the dramatics of a local preacher. Bar-Avo is a freedom fighter against the Roman occupation, whose story not only cuts across that of Yehoshuah, but occasionally is the alternative version (he is betrayed after breaking bread), but he is also a religious fundamentalist when it comes to Rome’s polytheism and habit of having men turn into gods if they are Emperor.
The Judas character is by far the most intriguing. A number of versions of “Iehuda of Qeriot” make him the anti-Roman zealot, the man disappointed that his political chosen one turned out to have metaphysical concerns. Alderman’s Judas does not hang himself, he hangs around at the salon of a rich, sceptical Greek who first showed him how miracle workers work – or grift – their miracles. This is Judas as the let-down man. He has a new life, and it is Purgatory; telling bawdy jokes to bored philosophers. Alderman’s classical learning is cunningly deployed here: Iehuda’s benefactor is called Calidorus, the name of the rich man in Plautus’s Pseudolus. He has become the quick-wit slave.
In a way, the Jesus figure is the least important in the book. What is important is the Roman occupation of Israel, and the mindsets created by a world where a bumped shoulder or the placing of a statue becomes a galvanising swarm of swords.
The descriptions of violence are visceral. Parts could be describing contemporary Afghanistan with only a change of names. Alderman’s Pontius Pilate is not a ditherer, but a smug and sadistic bully, and around him swirl the shades of a thousand “colonial governors”.
At the end, Alderman reveals herself as her own Fifth Gospeller to deliver a damning verdict on how the Jesus cult infiltrated Rome, made Jews to be the aggressors against both, and paved the way to future anti-Semitism. She admits herself as another partial narrator, and this is both honest and, as the Cretan paradox proves, immensely problematic. If the liar lies about lying, are they telling the truth?
The polemic here should have been an article, or at least, an article of faith. It finger-wags when the rest of the book shook its head, mournfully and forgivingly.
And if we are to speak of the truth and its limits, the Resurrection, or lack thereof, is the book’s strange black hole. Alderman plays a smart game of “not I” as each part of the quartet disavows knowledge of where the corpse of Yehoshuah went after his burial. It is indisputably elegant, but seems like a swerve away from the only story no modern re-imaginer has actually dared to imagine. It left this reader saying again and again “what if?”, “what if?”, “what if?”
Edinburgh International Book Festival, Wednesday, 7pm. www.edbookfest.co.uk
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