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The New New Testament

By Margaret Black

The Fire Gospel

By Michel Faber

Canongate, 213 pages, $20


Matthew, Mark, Luke, John . . . and Malchus? In his latest novel, The Fire Gospel, Michel Faber has his exceptionally cranky, mean-spirited, self-centered narrator, Theo Griepenkerl, discover a fifth gospel, written by Malchus, the man whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s even written in Aramaic, the language presumably spoken by Christ. Theo, a scholar of Aramaic, finds the scrolls of this gospel under circumstances that make it indisputably authentic, even if his successful theft of them exceeds credibility. After translating what turns out to be in Theo’s mind a truly dull account, he seeks to make big bucks by publishing it. When the work eventually achieves celebrity/notoriety, Theo experiences consequences beyond his wildest imagining—not that his is a particularly rich imagination.

Faber’s fable is caustic, brisk, always clever, and very funny. It’s a satire, a send-up of everything from Canadians to Amazon Customer Reviews to biblical solemnity. It takes on “relationships,” sex, Iraq, hostages, and much more, then spits us readers out 200 pages later with the final words of Malchus, an “Amen” coda of sudden and surprisingly straightforward honesty, perception, and truth.

The joy in reading this novel is its writing. In war-torn Iraq, Theo is trying to persuade an antiquities curator to consign what’s left in his museum to the care of the Toronto Institute of Classical Studies for safekeeping, until the “troubles” are over. Money’s involved, of course, enough to rebuild a really handsome new museum. The curator, wounded in a recent incident, is annoying Theo to death with his “untidy white bandage wrapped around his head, like a nappy, with a pinkish blush of imperfectly contained blood in the centre.” As the curator keeps pointing out what has been stolen or destroyed, Theo suspects “that if he didn’t take charge of the conversation soon, the curator would be compelled to remind him that Iraq was the cradle of civilization, that it had once been a peaceful melting pot of learning and tolerance when most other nations were still in their brutish infancy, blah blah blah.”

A huge bomb blast finishes off the curator, but reveals nine carefully-wrapped scrolls in the belly of a statue. When Theo has finally snuck the scrolls back to Toronto and unrolled them, they are all in such good condition that he can read them in his tiny post-breakup apartment. But he cannot believe what a bore Malchus turns out to be, going on and on about his doubtful bowels, his hanging ear (it wasn’t entirely severed and Christ didn’t heal him), and insignificant people with paltry problems.

There’s one Thaddeus (whose name, Malchus digresses, is really Judas, but Thaddeus has stopped using that name because of its terrible associations with the betrayer Judas) who doesn’t think a follower of Jesus can marry someone who isn’t. After long review of the issues, Malchus concludes, “I understand that many weeks have elapsed since you sent me your letter. Life demands actions, and actions follow swiftly upon provocation. In the case of the woman and the man, I imagine that whatever was not yet done when you wrote your letter is since done, and cannot be undone, and I have spilled ink for no purpose. But, even so, you asked a question and I answered it.”

Nevertheless, Malchus is present at the Crucifixion, and his story about what happens there does not follow the better-known gospels. That this material gets Theo in deep personal trouble comes as no surprise, although his rescues most definitely are.

Theo begins with a small publisher, wonderfully named Elysium, that was a scrounging bottom feeder until the owner “came upon a manuscript by a Norwegian schoolteacher, translated by a not-quite-bilingual translator, of games that parents should play with their children in order to teach them arithmetic.” Sing Times Seven has become so successful that it has stomped on all the novels auctioned for huge advances “with its little knitted Scandinavian booties.”

After an agonizingly slow start, The Fifth Gospel, the title of Theo’s translation, becomes a megahit, and Theo is shepherded to readings by a slinky female who would put Jennifer Garner to shame. Asked at one point where the precious scrolls are, Theo says they’re in his apartment, of course. The interviewer gasps; this is New York. “‘Canada,’ said Theo, ‘I live in Canada.’” Another handler coos, “‘Malchus is brilliant. A totally brilliant creation.’” Theo, exasperated, says he didn’t make Malchus up. “That’s totally how it comes across,” she replies.

One curious aspect to this book is its title. The Fire Gospel is used only once in the text, by a politician appealing for calm after a great book-burning of The Fifth Gospel. But if you happen to read the front matter of books, there’s a page that talks about “The Myths series,” whose authors (including Faber) have each “retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way.” If you go to the publisher’s Web site, you will find that Faber has chosen as his mythical figure, Prometheus, who disobeyed the gods, brought fire to man, and was punished horribly. This certainly offers a provocatively different approach to The Fire Gospel. But if this was the author’s intent, it would help to have something more than prepublication material for reviewers and a Web site entry to convey the information.

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