Naomi Alderman, The Liars’ Gospel
February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
Jesus novels: love them or hate them? With the exception of Jim Crace’s Quarantine, I’ve long given them a wide berth, assuming that they will be cheerleading for one side or the other. But I was keen to read Naomi Alderman’s third novel, The Liars’ Gospel, despite the unexpected material given the contemporary realism of her two previous literary novels and indeed the zombie serial novel she co-authored recently with Margaret Atwood on Wattpad. Although perhaps it’s not as different as it might at first appear: the themes of religion and, particularly, belonging are present in Alderman’s other novels, Disobedience and The Lessons, both of which could broadly be described as extended coming-of-age stories. Like Zadie Smith and Zoe Heller, Alderman writes in the best tradition of people who’ve lived on both sides of Atlantic and let both sides influence their writing, but The Liars’ Gospel takes this wise, modern voice and applies it to something else entirely.
The Liars’ Gospel begins after Yehoshuah’s death, with four different sections, or gospels, giving a different perspective on his life, in an increasingly broader context. The first section is told from the point of view of Miryam (Mary), Yehoshuah’s mother. Miryam is mourning her son, but also angry with him and the way he treated his family. The whole section originates, I can’t help feeling, in those striking New Testament verses where Jesus tells would-be followers to let the dead bury their dead, that anyone who wants to become his disciple must be prepared to leave his father and mother. These verses have always struck me as out of keeping with the image of a gentle, loving Jesus cultivated by many different Christian churches, and more in line with a jealous God. Alderman’s portrait of a grieving mother is excellently done, and we get a strong sense of Yehoshuah’s character and motivations.
Iehuda takes his turn next. After his betrayal of Yehoshuah, he’s sheltering with Calidorus, a Roman official, and the tale he tells is framed as entertainment for Calidorus’ guests, a neat little narrative Iehuda is obliged to repeat on demand as the price of his safety. Yehoshuah came to Iehuda’s village while he was still largely unknown, just one of many preachers who passed through, but this time Iehuda felt as though the preacher was reaching out to him, speaking to him personally. The two men discussed scriptural matters long into the night, and Iehuda joined the band of men as they moved on, both to escape his grief over his wife’s death and to find his spiritual home; make it if necessary, creating a new world where God’s word is not mediated through the corrupt traditions of the priests who have so obligingly, it seems, accommodated their Roman occupiers.
But Yehoshuah is not an easy man. At first inspirational, he becomes dependent on the growing worship of his followers. Iehuda could trust him when he proclaimed his ordinariness, but not when he will no longer deny the rumours that he is the son of God, the Messiah. The seeds of disappointment have been sown. When Iehuda says “We are not here to glorify you,” and Yehoshuah’s response shows that his humility has disappeared, the former loses his faith. He reports Yehoshuah’s whereabouts to Caiaphas, the High Priest, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The third and fourth sections move further out from these close portraits, giving a picture of the time from Caiaphas’ and then Bar-Avo’s (Barrabas’) viewpoint. Interesting as they are, these sections moved me less. With the first two, Alderman has really achieved something that would probably not have been possible from a Christian or an anti-Christian author. Jesus is here seen through the Jewish tradition, as an ordinary human whose unorthodox preachings led to what later became one of the world’s three largest religions. Not such an unusual thing: ecclesiastical splinterings and splittings, differences of theology and of course of who is entitled to speak with or for God, are commonplace. Even today, where they are perhaps more likely to be internal divisions or arguments between existing factions than ruptures leading to new denominations, ideas about how God should be worshipped (often concealed behind other issues) are central to a great deal of contemporary politics.
It’s this way in to Jesus’ story from a non-Christian background that allows Alderman to write a character that is so flawed without her needing to set out to be iconoclastic. While it is something of a deliberate takedown of an incredibly important figure, Alderman achieves it by way of a behind-the-scenes approach, showing the celebrity at home, off duty, off guard, and allowing us to watch his magic from offstage, from where we can see the tricks. She doesn’t need to point out the obvious but simply leads us by the hand saying, “Look, this simple explanation is behind what seems so mysterious and portentous in Matthew or Luke.” Her Yehoshuah is petulant and sulky, relying on others to feel good about himself, using sleight of hand to produce miracles, and eventually a victim of his own hubris. At the same time, he is also a force for good for some people (not always intentionally) and puts a voice to the popular opinions that the priests are corrupt. In those dangerous times, if dissent grew too noisy or too troublesome it could get you killed. Thousands of people perished for this reason; Alderman’s Yehoshuah was simply one of them.
Alderman’s gift for writing luminously and perceptively about people whose experiences she has not necessarily shared continues from the early novels to this one. Particularly impressive are her descriptions of military strategies and tactics. Where Disobedience and The Lessons might have been exercises in developing style and in autobiographical offloading to make room for new material, The Liars’ Gospel is a fully mature work.
Recently Alderman tweeted ‘Staring at the potsherds of my novel, telling self “better to fail at something ambitious than to succeed at sthing done 1m times before.”’ I couldn’t help but notice the relevance here of one of the book’s best quotes, which comes when Iehuda understands that his teacher has succumbed to the temptations of greatness, to a novel-writing context: “Losing one’s faith is so very like gaining it. There is the same joy, there same terror, the same annihilation of self in the ecstasy of understanding. There is the same fear that it will not hold, the same wild hope that, this time, it will. One has to lose one’s faith many times before one begins to lose faith in faith itself.”
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