[11 February 2009]
What if someone discovered plausible, historical proof that Jesus Christ was simply a man, who lived and died like any other man, whose last words were “Please, somebody, please finish me!” instead of “It is finished”? And what if he then presented that proof to the world? Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel takes this premise in his retelling of the Prometheus myth.
The book is part of a series, The Myths, published by Canongate, reimaginings of the ancient myths by noted authors like Jeannette Winterson (Atlas and Heracles), Margaret Atwood (Odysseus and Penelope), Victor Pelevin (Theseus and the Minotaur), and many others.
Prometheus, of course, was the crafty Titan who offended Zeus by bringing the gift of fire, a symbol of knowledge and progress, to mankind and who was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver devoured by an eagle, only to have it grow back and be devoured again the next day, day after day.
Michel Faber’s modern-day Prometheus is the hapless Theo Griepenkerl, an expert in the Aramaic language and envoy of a Canadian museum, who visits a museum of antiquities in Mosul, Iraq, not long after the invasion. His meeting with the museum’s curator is interrupted by a bomb blast in the street and, in the chaos that ensues, he discovers nine papyri, which have been hermetically sealed in the pregnant belly of a bas-relief goddess. He manages to smuggle them out of the country and, back home, he translates what becomes The Fifth Gospel, the gospel of Malchus, a petty scribe and spy for Caiaphas.
Writing only a few years after the death of Christ, Malchus reveals himself to be the man whose ear was struck off in the garden of Gethsemane and the only man to remain at Golgotha not only during the crucifixion and death of Christ, but for the days he is left dead on the cross, as was typical of crucifixions at the time, to be pecked eyeless by carrion birds. The other four gospels, having all been written many years later and, disputably, not even by eyewitnesses, The Fifth Gospel, its translator soon realizes, is religious dynamite.
However serious all of this may sound, Faber’s book is actually a humorous fable, a cautionary tale. Theo Grippen (his publisher shortens his name for obvious reasons—the word in German means “flu”) is a sad, overweight little Everyman, whose girl has just left him for a brawny photographer, and who, on the rebound, sees the publication of his translation as his ticket to fame, fortune, and babes.
He’s not wrong. Much of the book is taken up with his “book tour”, which snowballs from awkward, four-minute TV interviews, to readings in major city bookstores attended by hundreds. Along the way Theo commits all of the seven deadly sins, including bedding the gorgeous blonde publisher’s representative hedging her bets as Theo’s book climbs the charts.
Soon, The Fifth Gospel is on track to be the publishing phenomenon of the century, surpassing everything from Gone with the Wind to The DaVinci Code. But there’s a problem. Those who take Malchus’s words seriously are either plunged into a crisis of faith, or just plain angry. A little girl commits suicide, a book burning leads to more deaths. Theo has a gun stuck in his face by a little old lady in a wheel chair and is eventually abducted by two terrorist wannabes. Without giving it away here, the eagle visits Prometheus.
I like Michel Faber a lot. (Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Scotland and writes in English.) His bawdy, Dickensian Crimson Petal and the White is a stunning tour de force sustained over more than 900 pages, and Under the Skin is a highly literary arabesque combining elements of science fiction and horror with the pace of a thriller. His prose is crisp and pure, never fussy or fuzzy.
In The Fire Gospel, he finds resonance by structuring chapters according to books of the Bible, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Judges (a hilarious take on Amazon customer reviews), Acts, Revelations, and Lamentations. And, a nice stroke, Malchus, though a devout believer and anchorite, is also rather pathetic, and a bore, who is really just another Theo Grippen writing to bring his own fire to humankind two thousand years earlier.
The conclusion of the book leaves the religious question open. Theo, to his credit, or his damnation, depending on your point of view, has attempted to release his fellow man from the fetters of religion, hoping to refocus its efforts on the clear and present challenges facing it. It’s possible that he survives the effort. It’s possible also that he sees his mistake, not that “bringing fire” is not a good thing, but that, like the crucifixion of Christ, itself the supreme Promethean example, no good deed goes unpunished.