Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Gospel of Judas

I came back to this Simon Mawer novel now because I liked The Glass Room so much and because it seemed like a good segue from The Essene Conspiracy. Aside from the quantum leap in quality of the writing, this is a completely different kind of book. While it has a papyrus from a Qmran type source that offers a radically different version of Christ's life and the founding of the church, like Wachtel's book, like Da Vinci Code and its numerous imitators, this is not a thriller.

It is a novel about a priest's loss of faith, a complex drama in which the discovery of a putative "Gospel of Judas" plays a decidedly minor role and only really in the last third of the book. The story of Father Leo Newman, a British papyrologist who lives in Rome, has as much in common with Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest and J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban as it does with the garden variety biblical thriller.

Mawer in fact has such an understanding of the celibate's mind, the emotional stunting that accompanies the vow of chastity, the fragile foundation in faith for this type of dedication, that I checked his biography to see if he actually was in the seminary. If he was, his bio gives no indication of it, so perhaps he has simply gotten to know a number of priests well in his 30 years of living in Rome. In any case, I know from my own experience as a Jesuit novice and seminarian that he describes those feelings with agonizing accuracy.

Less surprising is how Mawer can make Rome palpable with a few deft strokes. These are not elaborate descriptions but telling details that betray an intimacy with the sights, sounds and smells of the Eternal City. I've only spent a smattering of weeks in Rome, but the city came rushing back into my memory in Mawer's narrative.

There is more to say about the plot but it is again the language that for me is in the forefront. It is a muscular prose, as vivid in its description of the tangible as the intangible. It is a sophisticated, sinuous narrative that has room for Latin, Italian, Greek, German seamlessly embedded in the text. In my research about the author, I came across this statement from an interview he gave:

"To write decent novels you have to be in love with the language. You have to feel the texture of it between your fingers, mould it like clay, carve it like marble. Despite all the creative writing programs in the world, I am sure this ability cannot be taught. So I try to use the meanings of words, of place names, of personal names, to inform the narrative."

This is exactly what comes across. In this book, just for instance, Mawer uses the redolent names of Rome's churches to convey the grandeur, the historicity, the plasticity, even, of these monuments -- Santa Maria Maggiore, San Crisogono, Santa Maria dell'Anima, San Lorenzo fuori le mura. His descriptions of the picnics and outings that his mother, the wife of the German ambassador to Italy, made in wartime Rome evoke the splendid ruin of Italy's past. Such pursuit of civilized leisure even as the Axis war machine rains terror on the rest of Europe is reminiscent of Visconti's "The Damned."

Mawer the writer does not seem to have much use for fidelity in marriage. Perhaps there's too little drama in that and it's only the adulterous affair that merits a novel. Leo's mother, the wife of the German ambassador, and Leo's lover, the wife of the British ambassador (no subalterns here) conduct curiously parallel affairs in Rome. Their husbands are similarly cold and detached, the implication being that this is the type of personality that becomes a successful diplomat. The women characters are so much more vibrant, despite their frailty or instability or moral flaws.

Judas Iscariot, the apostle, is the author of the gospel that Leo comes to believe is genuine. But the novel is full of other Judases. Leo's mother betrays her lover in a way that can know no forgiveness (except from the betrayed), and Leo himself earns the title of Judas for turning his back on his priesthood and the 2,000-year history of Christianity.

The details of the gospel are interesting, how it transforms the narrative of Jesus' life simply by shifting a couple of small facts. Whether genuine or forgery, whether a truthful account or deliberate misinformation, the gospel of Judas has little chance of challenging the centuries-old Christian faith. History has too much invested in the received tradition to accept any other truth, even if factual. Yes, the gospel has information that could shake Christianity to its foundations, but it can never earn the credence that would allow this to happen.

Just where the author stands in all this become clear in his account of Leo's "pilgrimage" at the end of the book, which explains why the church will remain triumphant and why it's futile to seek the truth.

Faith has no object to begin with, so it cannot be exposed. As Leo's lover Madeleine tells him when he finally accepts the inevitable about their relationship: "Poor poor Leo, learning at last the only lesson life has to give." "What's that?" [Leo asks]. "That there is nothing else. that there is only you and me, now, at this moment and this place. All else is no more than empty hope."

Just a few pages later, when Madeleine asks Leo if he still believes after the discovery of the gospel, Leo tries to say that belief doesn't just "evaporate."

Madeleine responds: "Doesn't it? That's exactly what it seems to do in my experience. Evaporate, like a lake or something drying up, leaving nothing behind but mudflats and a few dirty puddles and a musty smell of superstition."

Mawer clearly doesn't set out to write bestsellers. This is anything but a potboiler, though it is a compelling read and has its own suspense. Nor will his willingness to mock Christianity and make an apostate priest his hero endear him to legions of believers. But the reader doesn't have to identify with Leo. The reader can see him as a flawed, in some ways tragic individual. The Gospel of Judas is a question, not an answer, and the reader can decide where the truth lies.

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