The Liars’ Gospel
Viking, 272pp, £12.99
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by novels about biblical figures in which the boundary between fact and fiction, always the thorn in historical fiction’s side, is especially ambiguous. David Maine took on Noah in his novel The Flood, then Cain and Abel in Fallen, working the sparse details of the known stories into richly imagined domestic dramas. In Only Human, Jenny Diski recast the story of a photographic history of the capital from the reign of Queen Victoria to the present day. One of the earliest images in the book, which was taken in 1839, shows a view looking south down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament. The book closes with Sohei Nishino’s 2010 diorama of London, assembled from thousands of individual pictures Abraham and Sarah as a love triangle, with God the arrogant, petulant and gloriously narcissistic third party. Diski and Maine deploy humour to explore the relationship between the human and the divine to great effect. Comedy is the dominant key for these retellings but it’s comedy shot through with something much darker.
Now Naomi Alderman enters the fray with The Liars’ Gospel, a novel that circles around the elusive historical character of Jesus. She is by no means the first. Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son put the familiar story into Jesus’s voice to interrogate the New Testament versions. Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ attempted to extricate the human Jesus from the Messiah his disciples made of him. Others, from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Mitchell, have likewise attempted to distil the teachings of the itinerant preacher Jesus from the overwritings of the early Christians.
Alderman, however, is doing something rather different. While The Liars’ Gospel shares a central preoccupation with the nature of truth and the inherent slipperiness of words and memories, it roots its characters firmly and vividly in their historical and political context. You can see, hear, smell and taste first-century Judaea on every one of its pages. Alderman, whose previous two novels were concerned with contemporary Judaism, here succeeds magnificently in re-Judaising a story set 2,000 years in the past.
Jesus, Mary and the others are given back their Jewish names: Yehoshuah, Miryam, Iehuda. Yehoshuah/Jesus is one of numerous preacher-healers roaming Judaea. Pilate is one beleaguered and incompetent local ruler among many and answerable to his bosses back in Rome in what was then a relative backwater in the vast sprawl of the Roman empire. Religions existed cheek by jowl and had as much to do with power as with belief – then as now. Violence was endemic. If you think things are bad in Syria today, compare it with living in Jerusalem circa 30AD. Civilian massacres were routine, bloodshed common, deadly skirmishes between rebels and rulers commonplace. The city was a tinderbox that ignited with gruesome regularity.
The story in the novel is told through four narrators, their accounts overlapping and competing: Miryam, rejected by her son in his short lifetime and torn between sorrow and anger in the aftermath of his execution; Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jewish temple, in the pay of the Romans and the Jews and obliged to watch his back as carefully as he keeps the faith; Iehuda of Qeriot, the sceptic, trying to stay in the slipstream and survive in uncertain times; and Bar-Ova, the rebel leader, who understands the rules of the game and will play to the bitter end.
What Alderman’s telling has that others often lack is her mother-tongue familiarity with the Torah and Talmud. You can tell when a novelist is faking it and Alderman is clearly not. If you want a sense of what it meant to be Jewish in Jesus’s day, this is as good as it gets. Her evocation of religious life in the last days of the Second Temple (rebuilt by Herod and plundered definitively by Titus’s troops in 70AD) is superb. The mind boggles at the quantities of lambs and doves sacrificed each day, the hours spent preparing spices and grains for ritual offerings – and behind the scenes, the equally endless, equally knife-edge, balancing act required of Jewish religious leaders as they tried to placate the god-emperors in Rome and the one God in heaven.
Alderman’s handling of the events leading to the decisive moment when the crowd votes to save the murderer Bar-Ova/Barabbas and not the preacher Yehoshuah is also brilliant. Bar-Ova’s hatred of the Roman occupiers and his zealous determination to “drive them into the sea” has unmistakeable parallels to the position of Palestinian extremists today that Alderman is too bold and honest a writer to try to obscure.
Yet The Liars’ Gospel is principally about human beings and the ways in which we narrativise our lives as we live them. “Every story has an author, some teller of lies,” we read. “Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” The lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell others, the lies we do not even know are lies when we tell them, the lies we tell to save ourselves, the lies we need to believe are truths – all weave their way through these four alternative “gospels”. Yehoshuah is an enigmatic wraith who slips through all four narratives and frequently vanishes altogether. After reading this provocative and mesmerising novel, I’m quite prepared to believe that’s as good a truth as any.
Rebecca Abrams is the author of “Touching Distance” (Pan Macmillan, £7.99)