As a writer, Naomi Alderman is a veritable chameleon. First I read The Lessons, a tale of a fall from grace among the dreaming spires, in the manner of a modern Brideshead. Then it was The Power, a Margaret-Atwoodesque novel that veered between dystopia and sci-fi: a feminist, egalitarian cry of rage. And now, the third of her novels that I’ve read, The Liars’ Gospel is a raw and rugged historical novel. Brave, too, because it dares to confront one of the world’s seminal figures: in life, a controversial and provocative young preacher in 1st-century AD Judea; and, in death, the begetter of a cult that would become one of the dominant religions of the world. But who exactly was this teacher?
At first glance, Alderman’s novel is similar to Colm Tóibín’s Testament of Mary. Like that little book, it brings us hauntingly close to those around this young man, Yehoshuah of Natzaret, those who have loved him and followed him and yet still hardly know what to think. Yet it differs from Tóibín in its scope. There we faced Yehoshuah – Mary’s son – as the fulcrum upon which all the drama and uncertainty of the novel turned. Here, in Alderman’s novel, Yehoshuah’s teachings are merely one expression of a widespread political, social and nationalist malaise. Brilliantly, she forces us to step back from the Bible and to look at the events in Jerusalem in context of their time – a period of instability and hatred, where one erratic preacher’s death wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; times which were thick with blood and anger; times of occupation, brutalisation and revolution. This is the world not of the gospel marvels but of Josephus’ History of the Jews: a febrile, furious time when young men seek to take back their country and drive the invaders out.
And, in this world, a strange man wanders, preaching peace – ‘Love thy enemy’, he says, to Jews who have seen their friends slaughtered by Romans, and Romans who have faced the unending suspicion and loathing of the Jews. We learn of Yehoshuah from four different perspectives, which broaden out progressively from his own life to embrace the times in which he lived. First there is Miryam, his mother, struggling to make ends meet on her own in Natzaret, torn between her love for her absent eldest son and duty to her other children, abandoned by her exasperated husband. For Miryam, Yehoshuah will always be the quiet child who prefers thinking to working, not the man who disappears into the wilderness and gathers a crowd around him: a troubled loner whose followers fan the flames of his self-belief; a man who rejects his own blood-family in favour of those who believe him.
Then there is Iehuda, one of Yehoshuah’s followers, a man from Qeriot. He is lonely and lost until the charismatic teachings of this young teacher jolt him into curiosity again. He follows and is trusted: one of the few. But, unlike many of the others, Iehuda keeps asking questions: he strives to understand, rather than simply accept. And it’s this that eventually begins to trouble him. For Yehoshuah’s following is growing too big. It’s becoming a movement, rather than a group of the faithful, and Yehoshuah himself is starting to manifest terrifying delusions of grandeur. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide, Iehuda can think of only one path a rational man might take: a path that God himself seems to urge him towards. But afterwards, having led his closest friend to death, what path can a man take then?
Next we meet Caiaphas, the ambitious High Priest of the Temple, a politically savvy and sensible man. To him falls the unwelcome task of balancing the humours in this fraught city, keeping the divine rituals running and trying to placate the angry people, while smoothing the ruffled feathers of their occupiers. A decent man, trying to keep the peace, Caiaphas can only watch as discontent swells among the people: a discontent that is little served by the yammering of some half-crazed teacher who seems to claim to be the son of God. And then, finally, there is Bar-Avo, a revolutionary, a fighter, a brawler and a rebel leader, who heads the underground network of simmering freedom fighters. When arrest lands him in the same cell as an exhausted preacher, Bar-Avo pities the poor wretch, all the more so when they are brought before the people of Jerusalem and their lives are placed in the hands of an unruly mob. But for Bar-Avo, too, this meeting will have limited consequences. A man, met in the darkness and pitied; a man who then died. What of this?
Perhaps the greatest achievement in Alderman’s book is to show how insignificant Yehoshuah’s teachings were at the time. Reading the Bible, we’re inclined to see his meetings with Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod as epic confrontations, resonating through time, but Alderman asks us to put ourselves in the moment: an anxious time, a time when people are concerned with themselves alone, and when one man’s death hardly makes a dent on immediate affairs. Riots break out and Jerusalem continues to seethe down the years. In a city plagued by sieges, which was eventually destroyed wholesale by the future emperor Titus in 70 AD, how can one man’s death mean anything? Alderman is illuminating on the complexities of Jewish ritual, something which I know far too little about. Her research is obviously thorough and well-grounded. And yet she isn’t an iconoclast. While shrewdly showing us how stories develop, and how events from one life might slip into another, she keeps certain questions open – never quite deploying her full hand. And that, perhaps, is her greatest balancing act of all.
Brutal, incisive and thought-provoking, this is an excellent introduction to the period – not so much as a story of Jesus, but of the world he lived in, the world that shaped him, and the world he left behind him on his death, whatever happened next. It is very much worth reading and, personally, I enjoyed it just as much as The Testament of Mary, albeit in a different way. It occurs to me – having also read Esther – that Biblical fiction, done well, can be a perfectly rewarding way of learning about the political and social history of the Near East – as long as one can avoid the more breathlessly evangelical novels. I would love to know what others have thought of Alderman – from all perspectives: those who are Jewish, Christian or nothing at all. Does this book speak differently to different people?