When a novelist retells a familiar story, she first has to humble her readers to convince them hers is a different, and more interesting, version than the one they know. In "The Liars’ Gospel," her third novel, British Jewish author Naomi Alderman retells one of the best-known stories – the story of Jesus – and so must doubly-or-triply humble her readers to make them listen. To accomplish this, she ups the ante, retelling the story not once but a total of four times in the memories of Jesus’ fellow Jews, characters we think we know already: Mary (here known by her Hebrew name Miryam), Judas (or Iehuda), the High Priest Caiaphas, and a historically credible but fictional Jewish rebel, Bar-Avo.
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Alderman won the Orange Award for New Writers for her first novel, "Disobedience" (2006),the story of an Orthodox rabbi’s daughter who, having come out as a lesbian, returns home on the death of her father and encounters the tensions between her home and her new life. The kind of religious fluency (Alderman’s own father is a professor of English-Jewish history) and daring storytelling you would expect from the author of such a novel is fully on display in "The Liars’ Gospel."
We first meet the characters responsible for the book’s four "gospels" a year after the crucifixion of Jesus (who is referred to by his Hebrew name, Yehoshua). Alderman devotes nearly a quarter of the book to each character’s third-person perspective, making the novel read like a linked story collection. (The Gospels themselves could, perhaps, be considered such a collection). She begins with each character’s present circumstance and flashes back to their memories of Yehoshua – who, in keeping with the witnessing nature of the "gospel" genre, doesn’t get a chapter of his own.
Immediately, Alderman puts what we know of her characters’ mythological personas in conflict with her fictional representations of them – Miryam is not a passive vessel that carried a man who became a god, but rather a fiercely loving and practical mother who continues to mourn her firstborn son even as she despairs that he abandoned her for his followers. (We flash back to a scene in which she tries to see him at one of his study sessions, but he turns her away). And Iehuda’s betrayal of Yehoshua is framed not as an unfortunate necessity of God’s will, but as the sad but natural outcome of a too-close friendship and rivalry between the two men.
The characters’ remembrances do not emerge in a vacuum, but are provoked by a volatile political climate that extends from the one in which Yehoshua was killed: Miryam’s thoughts about Yehoshua begin to trouble her anew when one of his followers arrives in Nazareth nearly dead, having been pursued by Romans. Her neighbors push her forward to look at him, because, "A mother would know her own son, however changed he might be. Though they know there is no hope and he is at least a decade too young. But just in case." Of course, it is not Yehoshua. But this briefly raised hope introduces us to Miryam’s constant, dull mourning – "When she grinds the wheat, she thinks of him. And when she soaks the cloths, she thinks of him" – and also to the potency of rumor and storytelling in this time and place, a theme that returns and eventually becomes part of a kind of narrative thesis Alderman espouses.
Alternate courses of history
Miryam and Iehuda, whose religious representation usually flattens them in the popular imagination, are the characters Alderman brings most vividly to life; and she does so without sacrificing historical credibility. She uses the character of Caiaphas deftly, too, to open the novel to the politics of the day. Under Roman rule beginning with Pompey, the high priest was appointed by the emperor, and religious ritual in the Temple was tainted by political considerations. In Alderman’s hands, Caiaphas is a human, smartly rendered microcosm of the escalating conflict between Jews and Rome (which led eventually to the destruction of the Second Temple).
Exploring the emotional interiors of historical figures in a novel, even figures that have attained mythological status, isn’t new. What's freshest and most daring here is the freedom Alderman gives her readers to imagine alternate courses of history, as she does in Bar-Avo’s section, the last in the book. Although he seems to be furthest removed from the story Alderman aims to retell, the novel works hard to convince us otherwise.
A rebel who sees his first riot against Roman soldiers at the age of 15, Bar-Avo rejects his family (his name comes from his decision to be known as "the son of some father") and is adopted by the Jewish resistance. He watches the leader of the group closely to learn how he draws followers: "The constant denial that he was a man of any importance whatever. The impression that he was holding secrets and that, perhaps, he spoke to God. These are the skills by which a man leads, inspiring both love and fear."
Bar-Avo becomes a prominent leader himself, assembling a small but powerful Jewish army, whose members Alderman somewhat anachronistically calls "freedom fighters." As Alderman constructs Bar-Avo’s story, she begins to suggest parallels between the psychology of Yehoshua’s followers (one of whom we meet early on in Miryam’s chapter) and that of Bar-Avo's. She often returns to the question so central to Bar-Avo’s existence: What does it take to make a man follow you? Bar-Avo concludes that "it must seem that you are the one who knows the way out. Every person is in a dark place. Every person wants to feel that some other man has found the road back into the light."
The desire to follow, Alderman suggests, whether a quiet man like Yehoshua or a fighting one like Bar-Avo, had a common root for Jews at this time in history: The need to wrest free of Roman occupation. More broadly, she may be commenting on the impulse that drives people to follow religious leaders or military commanders in any age. (Here, though, with her misplaced use of "freedom fighter" and the rebel leader vowing to "drive the Romans into the sea," Alderman’s allegorical hand can get a bit heavy).
Liars worth listening to
The rebels plan to storm Jerusalem just before Passover. But upon arrival, they find they are surrounded. "Someone must have given away their position … One of them, with his guilty expression, will show himself a traitor." Alderman, intent on drawing the rebel and the preacher closer together, has even written a Judas-like character for Bar-Avo. Bar-Avo is captured and thrown into a cell with – whom else? – Yehoshua. It is in this cell that we return to the question of chance, and to the "liars" in the novel’s title. "God’s will, not my will be done," Yehoshua says to Bar-Avo, accepting that his fate is to die. Bar-Avo thinks exactly the opposite – his will is the only will that matters.
Here, Alderman presents a historical crossroads, although she never states it plainly. If people followed men like Yehoshua and those like Bar-Avo for similar reasons, then the course of history could have been changed if, on one hand, the more willful one – in her account, Bar-Avo – had been the one put to death, or, on the other hand, if a man like Bar-Avo had led his people without violence. Alderman’s epilogue, spoken in the voice of her omniscient narrator-cum-opinionated-historian, takes an even broader teleological view of history: The Second Temple is destroyed, the Jews are thrown into exile, and "This was how it ended," she writes. "And all the sorrow that came after followed from this."
Simplistic, maybe; but Alderman makes no apologies. She is a liar, like her characters, and the arc of the story, of history, is at least temporarily in her hands. But what does she mean by liars? Storytellers, she reminds us in the epilogue, "know that every story is at least partly a lie … Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point." To us, reading fiction, what Alderman calls "lying" isn’t so much a wrongful act as it is the revelation of each person’s limited perspective, the biases and attentions of a character that make a story human and worth reading. With respect to the stories that make up the world’s religions, the lie, emphasis or omission that makes the story can also represent a wish – that one man could rise from the dead, that another man could control completely the fate of his people, that humans could be more than human.
To that end, Alderman plays a clever trick by telling the "liars’ gospels" in third person – she, along with her characters, becomes all four storytellers, each one with a different urgency at stake in the story and each with a different "lie" to shape the retelling. It’s a shape-shifting that adds a layer of existential complexity to this ambitious, large-hearted book
Leah Falk is a poet living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.