Book review: The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrere PIC: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Emmanuel Carrere PIC: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
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Emmanuel Carrère sets out his pitch early. At a rather French dinner party, one of his guests says “it’s strange, when you think about it, that normal intelligent people can believe something as unreasonable as the Christian religion… even if you don’t share their faith, you take them seriously”. This needles Carrère into writing this book. He is successful as a novelist and screenwriter, but has a secret, in that he used to believe. So he writes a kind of extended treatment, an unmakeable film, about the origins of the early Church. It is a book where the author tells you what he is thinking and then tells you about his thinking about his thinking.

Mostly his thinking is ingenious. His entry into the story is a storyteller’s approach. Of all the Gospel writers, only Luke uses the first person – albeit in Acts Of The Apostles, not his Gospel. This chink of individuality is the narrow gate through which Carrère observes Paul, Peter, James the Just, John, Mark, Josephus and – askance – Jesus. It is as much speculation as documentation, and is all the better and none the worse for that. Carrère’s Luke is a gentile intrigued by the purity of Judaism, who becomes an ally of, and sceptic towards, the former Saul of Tarsus, latterly St Paul. The Pauline epistles are the earliest Christian documents – the Gospels, in the form we have them, are all much later – and Carrère sets himself the task of filling in the years between the crucifixion of a condemned rural prophet, the appearance of the letters to churches written by the sophisticated and pugnacious Paul, and the eventual writing of the Gospels. Throughout this, as a kind of counterpoint, are Carrère’s own vacillations about faith, meaning, writing and being honest with oneself.

Sometimes this honesty is compelling. He recounts a conversation with his psychotherapist, whom it seems has had enough of him, and the killing line is, “Well… you talked about suicide. It doesn’t get a very good press these days, but sometimes it’s a solution.” At other times, the honesty is more self-regarding. He is brilliant on authenticating details in the Gospels, but I really don’t need to read several pages about his obsession with amateur pornography to get the point; nor do I care to know that he and his wife discuss such matters. At least he is honest that he is less ashamed of his love of masturbation videos than his tentative, vexed faith.

Carrère is at his best discussing Luke as a writer. His imagining of various points in Luke’s life – such as an elderly Luke reading Josephus’s De Bello Judaico, in a slum straight out of the poetry of Martial, or Luke seeking out Philip the Evangelist to hear more about this Christ that he knows about only through the sermons of Paul – are ravishingly convincing. He infuses Luke with the egotism and neediness that he amply demonstrates himself. His own spiritual path is a sadly familiar one: unthinking atheism to blind faith to grievous agnosticism. But at least the thorn in the flesh is still there, niggling him to try to understand the nature of faith.

Given how precise, detailed and accurate Carrère is about the New Testament texts, it is rather bemusing that he misses a trick or two. For example, he makes much of the tradition that Luke was a doctor – hence many of the healing miracles in his Gospel, and the sense that one does not heal the healthy – but does not comment on the fact that one of the first phrases Luke attributes to Jesus is “Physician, heal thyself”. He is sceptical about Paul’s acquaintance with Greek culture, but does not mention that Paul in fact quotes a Greek comedian – it’s First Corinthians, 15:33 if you want to check, and comes from a play by Menander called Thaïs about a prostitute. The idea of St Paul sitting watching a ribald farce and remembering it enough to include it in an epistle is staggering enough to warrant comment.

Carrère frequently tries to reverse-engineer 21st century Parisian life on to Palestine in the 1st century: Luke’s obsession with this new “Way” cult is a bit like Carrère himself doing yoga; the threat of fanatical religious obsessives means that the Sicarii and the French Muslims are one and the same. One can always find parallels. Finding differences is a deeper and more significant matter.

Yet I couldn’t help but love this book, even with its terribly French excesses. The scene where Carrère washes the feet of disabled people is profoundly moving, shocking and made me realise how weak a believer I am compared with his agnosticism. Carrère cites Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus several times – a 19th century attempt to find a “rational” religion behind the nonsense about resurrections and miracles – and is in some ways Renan’s heir. But even he might acknowledge that sometimes something is believable because it is unbelievable. Were the Gospel writers fools, frauds or fantasists? Or were they something else entirely?

*The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère, Allen Lane, £20