Reader, Where Lies the Truth?
Naomi Alderman presents another view of the 4 Gospels of the New Testament. This is fiction, and imaginative, and at the heart is the premise that so is the story Western Civilisation has largely been built on. Which version is the Liars Gospel is left to the reader to decide
Alderman is a cool, pragmatic, reasoned writer, with excellent control of her medium. However, having recently read Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, inhabiting some of the same territory, the Toibin book was constantly in my thoughts, and comparisons inevitable.
Inevitably, as Toibin has continued to snag and pull at me, it was impossible to read the Alderman book without preconceptions. Had I read Alderman first, I’m sure I would have given it 5 stars, AND then the same to the Toibin – having read that first, I value this a little less.
Comparisons ARE odious, the personality of each book is very different – by focusing on one person’s story – that of Mary, Toibin lifts this into a universal which will, I think, be disturbing, unsettling and insistent for committed Christian, agnostic and atheist alike. Toibin is clearly not a believer in the Gospel’s `spin’ (neither is Alderman) but he is more passionately, and personally engaged within the very human relationship of Mother and wayward, disruptive son. Although he offers a plausible explanation for how this particular story was woven, he is not afraid to come close to unexplained mystery – hence, there is unsettling questioning for the reader, of faith or none.
By comparison, Alderman’s book, told, with more of an idea of the historical and political background than the Toibin, is a story of Roman occupation across more than a century, and the ways in which both conquerors and occupied territory make pragmatic, workable choices – or battle for control of dissidence on the one hand, and to overthrow the hated aggressor, on the other Giving her 4 central gospellers , in the main, Hebraic rather than Romanized names,
the first Gospel is in Miryam’s voice (Mary). Yehoshua is clearly a man of charisma, but unstable and deluded. Quite mad. (Here is where Toibin scores as though his Jesus has many of these characteristics, his fervent belief is not quite so logically dismissable, there is……..a something).
Iehuda (Judas) is here one of the more understandable characters – he is the visionary, the man of faith, who sees Yehoshua tumble into pride and a kind of arrogance.
Caiaphas, the High Priest, is a wily politician, holding on to power, trying to find a way to wrest from Rome what he can, and keep what he can for his people, trying to give away as little to the occupying force as possible. Playing Pilate at his own wily game, keeping the faith of the people.
Bar-Avo (Barrabas) is in many ways the simplest character (and I felt this was the least successful narrative. Essentially a powerless young man, hating the tyranny of occupation, testosterone driven, and ripe for grooming as a freedom fighter