I like Biblical novels. So much so that I wrote one*, and so much so that after reading about ten/twenty, I still read more. This one, The Tongues of Men or Angels by Jonathan Trigell (writer of Boy A, which I’ve heard of but know nothing about), tells the story of the apostles – the first generation of devotees to the crist**. These are the disciples who go on to travel the Mediterranean post the crucifixion in order to spread the world, and the self-proclaimed visionary and founder of the vein of Christianity than would balloon to become Catholicism – Paul who once was Saul.
The novel jumps about in time, telling the childhood of the disciples, their lives before being plucked from obscurity by Jesus, some of their time with him, the splitting factions of their movement, The Way, in the years that followed their leader’s death, as well as their successess and failures on the international stage. Action moves from south of Jerusalem, up along the Levant coast, through Greece and ultimately climaxes in Rome, the city where both Peter (the Rock on which the church was built) and Paul are historically believed to have been martyred. There is a lot of travel, a lot of great city and landscape descriptions, and the acknowledgements at the novel’s end clarify that a lot of this came from life, as Trigell travelled through many of the places his characters visit.***
With all of these foreign locales, the novel discusses communication a lot. Language and cultural barriers, and particularly the cultural assimilation of all manner of other religions into the burgeoning Pauline Christianity. For the original apostles of Jesus, those who knew him as a man, his message and his words were a continuation and expansion of a somewhat humanistic Judaism. For Paul, who only ever knew the crist in visions he had of a man already dead, Jesus is God, is eternal, he transforms bread and wine into his blood, he was born of a virgin, was not of this earth, floated into the heavens after his resurrection and has changed numerous ideas and tenets of his preaching because the afterlife, well, it’s a bit different to life on earth.
The plot revolves around Paul spreading this far more mystical and supernatural version of Jesus and its increasing conflict with the more nuanced but LESS FUN preaching of the men who once knew him – Peter and James the Lesser, the younger brother of Jesus. Here, James is the beloved disciple of the Gospels, here there are intimations of an eroticised, homosexual, incestuous bond between the Messiah and his brother. Here there are gladiatorial battles, there are executions, there is remorseless evil, there is corrupting faith, there is anger and hatred and vitriol between people declaiming, in rival styles, the ultimate importance of love.
The Tongues of Men and Angels is full of irony, I suppose, with the obligatory reinterpretations of famous Bible scenes, but the absolutely fresh ideas that novels like this need in order to be entertaining to the contemporary, non-Christian reader. The crucifixion – in fact, all the violence throughout – is excellently done, it is cruel and harsh and made even empathetically dead me shudder in fear. There is a gorgeous retelling of the ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone’ story, which is the last glimpse the reader gets of Jesus. By this point (as the novel is non-linear), we have already heard the lies spread about him, felt the torture tear his body apart, read the exuberance and borderline madness created within those who felt him to be important. By this point the crist’s life has already been imagined and reimagined by numerous characters, as well as the narratorial voice****, and it is fitting that at the character’s close he is seen as what most contemporary Western voices (including my own) tend to write him as, if they write of him sympathetically:
A good man, eloquent, kind, and balanced. The same as the Jesus in my novel of John the Baptist, but published.
I enjoyed this. But mine has more sex in.
* It’s unpublished, but it’s really good. I mean, genuinely, it’s really good. Here’s a link to a very early passage from it, back when I was a humble creative writing student: http://www.gold.ac.uk/goldfish/novel/scott-manley-hadley/
** I still want to spell Christ as Paul Kingsnorth does in The Wake. (Review here.)
*** I mean, obviously, these descriptions aren’t wholly “taken from life”. I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but I have visited Athens, Rome and (though it doesn’t appear in the novel but was thriving at the same kind of time) Carthage, it is possible to get a sense of these ancient metropolis’ feel. There are buildings (the Roman Forum, the Acropolis) that still partially stand, that evidence the size and scope and complexity of these long-gone civilisations. It is, again, why I enjoyed The Wake‘s idea of a collapsed, historic, society so much – the fact that I have seen Pompeii, I have seen Carthage, I have seen ruins on Greek islands, i have witnessed first-hand the evidence of societal collapse that will one day befall us. I’d love to live through horrible, destructive times. It’s one of the reasons why I’m pro environmental change – I think it will bring on revolution/excitement. I just hope it happens before I’m too old to survive more than a few weeks.
**** Which is, actually, gently inconsistent and would be my one criticism of the text. A few casual “fuck”s and implications of a historical distance, but an unspecified one, jarred a little. But that’s minor, I suppose. Characterisation and description are more important, right, and Trigell gets both of those pat.