The Gospel of Judas (Simon Mawer)

Posted: February 14, 2016 in fiction
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I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.

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