IIf you haven’t read Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, you might know it as the short on Booker’s shortlist (and therefore not a bad place to start). It is only 104 pages. But what makes it truly striking – in addition to its compelling narrator, its lyrical physical evocation of its time and place, and its explosive ending – is the fact that it is another one novel about Jesus.
Jesus spends a moment in literary fiction. Novelists never tire of it. In September 2012 Naomi Alderman’s Gospel of the Liars was published – a month before Tóibín’s book. The year before came Lazare est mort by Richard Beard, and before that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. More allegorically, Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee appeared earlier this year.
“There have certainly been more novels about Jesus recently,” says Stuart Kelly, who is on this year’s Booker jury. He thinks they could be a reaction to the current situation in the Middle East, or “the left and strident atheism of people like [Richard] Dawkins. People can argue all they want about the new atheism, but what it doesn’t do is explain why this story has had such a hold on the human imagination for 2,000 years.”
So why does he have it? Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has read novels by Pullman, Jim Crace (whose 1997 book Quarantine is about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert) and some of the Coetzees. He thinks the story of the Gospels intrigues novelists because: “It is a story charged with the most immense irony imaginable – the decisive embodiment of divine action, purpose and power in the human world proves to be not just a wandering peasant shaman, but a character who fails to convince and ends up being humiliated and executed.”
“Decisive” these portraits are however not. The Mary of Tóibín is determined not to oblige the evangelists who seek to preserve the teachings of her son (she cannot bring herself to say his name). They seem more interested in the story than the truth, and Mary’s son comes across as an annoying character with a loud voice and weird clothes who takes up too much sidewalk space – a kind of first-century hipster. Miryam of Alderman differs by compelling a follower by telling him what he wants to hear about her pregnancy. “She knows the story she’s telling is a lie, but she’s telling it anyway…because it comforts her to see that he believes it.”
As this last sentence suggests, the writing of the Gospels is woven into the plot of Alderman’s and Tóibín’s books. Perhaps the story of Jesus’ life bears a romantic reiteration partly because it has always been told by many voices – not only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but many others whose versions do not were not included in the Bible.
This duplication and overlapping of narratives must create holes and recesses in which novelists can work, to narrativize the contradictions and build new worlds in the gaps. After all, each story carries its own truths, and the collective effect of their variation is to suggest that there is no gospel truth – just lots of gospel stories.