Thursday, 28 February 2013

The Liars' Gospel

By Naomi Aldermann
Published by Penguin, 2012

 Judas, by Lady Gaga (from Vevo).
Her interpretation of a demonic Judas contrasts with Alderman's  less vital interpretation.

Tendentiousness undermines an attempt at retelling the Jesus myth in a naturalistic manner.

Jesus, Moses and even God are literary characters and creations. They may, if you are a believer, also have a different kind of reality, but whatever else they may be, they are characters in stories.

This is a reimagining of the Jesus story. It assumes, reasonably, a familiarity with the outlines of this story, but the characters are unhelpfully given names different to their common English ones – so Jesus becomes Jehoshuah, his mother is Miryam, etc. Oddly Pilate retains his English name, and is not called Pilatus.  

This mild distancing effect suggests anxiety that the story might be seen as blasphemous or shocking; but the only shock I encountered (admittedly as an unbeliever) had nothing to do with the representation of Jesus.  

In telling Jesus’ story indirectly, from the perspectives of his mother, of Judas, of the Jerusalem High Priest and of Barrabas, we are drawn into the wider contemporary context of the story, in particular the political situation in and around Jerusalem. 

This historical part of the work is done well. The atmosphere of occupied Jerusalem is skilfully evoked, and the narrative is lively, bookended by descriptions of the original Roman conquest through to the destruction of the city in  the first century CE.

But this aspect of the novel is also the most shocking. For Jerusalem is currently at the heart of a similar conflict. Given that the current oppressors claim authority as descendents of the Jews of this novel, this novel appears to provide historical justification for Israel’s current brutal oppression in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (and more widely across modern Israel). 

I don’t know if Alderman intends this; it may be that she intends rather to show that violent oppression begets violence, unless somehow we understand Jesus’ unique addition to Rabbinic teachings, ‘love your enemy’. 

Perhaps readers are supposed to link the practices of the ancient Romans with those of current Israelis; but I didn't get that impression, nor does the treatment of the central focus of this novel suggest that the author was aiming for irony.

The central focus of the novel is Jesus' ministry, and this is is significantly weaker because the author seems to be pushing her views on us at every opportunity.

On moral grounds, I am unhappy with the parrallels to the current situation in Israel; on aesthetic grounds, this treatment isunobjectionable. The reverse is true when it comes to the treatment of the Jesus myth.

A novel centred on Jesus is a formidable challenge, for the realist novel can – perhaps must – humanise everyone. This is a poor option for mythic figures, even those nobody directly worships, such as Ulysses. Any attempt to realistically convey, for example, Jesus' childhood in a novel would frustrate even the most orthodox Christian.

The author sensibly retains some of the strangeness of the Jesus myth, particularly of the earliest retelling of it we have, the disturbing Gospel of Mark. She stresses the human and apocalyptic aspects of the myth.

In so far as there must be some demythologising in an historical, realist, novel, the author seems to have adopted a conservative approach, allowing a reader to believe in Jesus’ divinity, or at least that he was an important spiritual teacher. 

Oddly, some of the most problematic aspects of the myth, from the viewpoint of ‘realism’, are retained. I think this is a bold idea, but it results in the novel’s weakest scene.

Miracles are accepted (albeit judiciously). Visions are accepted, so that Judas may have been blessed by Jesus before his betrayal. Nobody knows what happens to Jesus’ body, leaving resurrection a possibility.

Confronting the Greek-writing, perhaps self-hating Jewish apostles, Alderman goes horribly wrong in attempting to reimagine the trial of Jesus. Its important for the historical fiction strand of the novel that we experience a Jewish freedom fighter / terrorist, and this is a good idea for explaining Barrabas’ popularity with the crowd, but why would Pilate ever agree to allow the harmless Jesus to be executed over such a trophy as a resistance leader?

I found Alderman completely implausible here, and this undermines her attempt at realism. The canonical gospels are much more effective here – and since we know crowds can be extremely nasty, there are no moral reasons why the author should try to exonerate the crowd that condemned Jesus.
Lest I seem perverse in suggesting that the scene quoted in all manner of anti-semitism (christ-killing) is aesthetically and morally unobjectionable, I must add that all that is needed is to show that this was a typical crowd, rather than a crowd of Jews, as if being Jewish were the important distinction.

I regard it self-evident that it is possible to give a plausible explanation for Jesus’ condemnation that did not imply anything negative about Jewish people (or judaism) in general. I don't mean to downplay the gospel author's genuine anti-semitism, but this is from their perspective a happy coincidence arising from their pragmatic aesthetic choice.

The Greek Testament scene(s) of choice between Jesus and Barrabas is an aesthetic triumph and a moral disaster (at least in retrospect). Taken as art, these are the scenes that grant something like tragic eminence to the myth, and are responsible for much of the regrettably continuing appeal of Christianity. In life, they are linked to the continuing anti-semitism responsible for so much misery.

Perhaps the greatest mystery in Christian religion is not how Jesus can be both God and man, but how a loving Jew can symbolise a religion that has and does persecute Jews.

While the desire to provide an alternative interpretation to these scenes is extremely understandable, the implausible reinterpretation here is a major aesthetic mistake.

This tendentiousness, the intense desire to tell us that the Jesus myth has been a disaster for Jewish people, bedevils the entire novel.
If the novel is judged a contribution to refute antisemitism, or to informing believing and non-believing Christians / gentiles of the rich tradition within which Jesus existed, then it is a success, notwithstanding my reservations about modern Israel mentioned above. 

If the novel is judged as art, it is a failure. Someone – an Inuit hermit? – unfamiliar with the Jesus myth would wonder why it mattered, whereas reading Mark’s gospel, or certainly John’s, would surely understand its splendour, while disliking its racism, among many other things.

Although her writing style is normally admirable in concision and beauty, Alderman tends to characterise the four central subjects similarly – sympathetically, as intelligent, wise and courageous, albeit on different sides. While some dark humour enlivens proceedings, I wanted greater variety of character; perhaps the High Priest could have been a more comical figure unaware of his weaknesses, etc. 

Sometimes, the author’s desire to convince us of her central thesis betrays her style – an observation that couldn’t occur to the character (perhaps because it refers to things before they were born, or when they weren’t present) intrudes on the narrative. 

The most disastrous intrusion of authorial voice rather than character voice happens in the last two pages of the novel, and I would suggest readers simply stop before then. I can’t imagine the reader who would need the point battered so much that the last pages would be worth reading .

Overall, then, an interesting failure. Perhaps Alderman can now tackle a less mythical, yet much more significant early Christian Jew: Paul. I think she could achieve great things with this subject more congenial to a novel.

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