Review: Michel Faber – The Fire Gospel

Flamin' NoraIf you wanted to be churlish, you might accuse Canongate of slightly cheating when it comes to this novel. Clocking in at 200ish pages of large, wide margined text in hardback, this is really more of a novella, and has much more of a short story feel than something like The Crimson Petal and the White, or even Under the Skin (his first novel, which was adapted from a short story – a fact that becomes kind of apparent with a bit of a panicky, tacked on ending, even while the whole novel is still excellent). But if you didn’t get it out of the library like a sucker, you’d still have forked £12.99 out for it. It’s not very literary to mind about ‘value for money’, and of course there’s more to it than a simple word count, but still, guys, come on. There’s a limit to the number of notes I’m going to want to write down the side. I could fit another novel in there.

Anyway, that’s a minor, tight-fisted quibble, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this book also does feel a bit like an eked out short story. That in mind, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent read. Theo Griepenkerl, an Aramaic scholar with a failing love-life and a fairly unsympathetic penchant for self-pity, discovers a perfectly-preserved scroll in an Iraqi museum during a bomb blast. Eschewing the normal channels for academic discovery, Theo smuggles it back to the US to translate it himself, only to find that he has stumbled on a fifth gospel of Christ’s life. Despite the incendiary nature of the material, Theo struggles to get it published – Malchus, the gospel’s author, has an irritating classical chronicler’s tendency to write about his bowel complaints and parental disputes alongside his more incendiary revelations about Christ’s final moments. (As a past student of Medieval History I loved this touch – medieval chroniclers are all about the digestive transit and ‘nocturnal emissions’ as well as the deifying. This is pretty much the only thing I actually retained from my studies.) But he finally manages it through a niche publisher, the book becomes a bestseller, and Theo becomes an overnight sensation, albeit a controversial one. Without giving too much away, some of the revelations about Christ are less than palatable to various religious groups, and Theo soon finds himself a target as well as a celebrity.

The view of the literary world is deliberately satirical, making fun of the author’s book-tour exhaustion, bafflement at fans, and of course, the fear of the review (these particularly tickled me!). But at the same time it satirises the pseudo-religious thriller, the Da Vinci Code style protagonist who uncovers a new truth, only to have the established institutions after him and his inevitably beautiful female new ally. Theo is neither morally upstanding nor wedded to a larger idea of the ‘Truth’ – he simply wants to get his own back on his girlfriend for leaving him, and maybe make a bit of money too. He briefly meets the Dan Brown-esque sidekick in the beautiful agent’s assistant who organises him, provides him with security and of course sleeps with him, but as the plot takes a bizarre and farcical twist away from that formula, she’s powerless to follow. So Faber both makes fun of these books, the industry that produces them (he’s advised to change his name to ‘Theo Grippin’ to make it more accessible. And ‘gripping’, I guess) and the readers who demand a certain kind of satisfaction from them.

Viewed in this way, you can forgive the kind of two-dimensional figures that appear – the shallow, bitchy girlfriend, the cynical, overworked publisher, the unhinged fans and the equally unhinged religious extremists who attack him. As a reworking of the Prometheus myth, it works well – not too didactic, not too slavish to the original. It satirises the notion that world-changing discoveries are necessarily made through noble intentions, but equally shows through the media circus how this modern Promethean fire, this ‘inflammatory discovery’ ends up being a circular, confused kind of a revelation. It makes an impact, but it doesn’t necessarily change the world. That the book ends in a kind of farce is, in a way, the only course of action open to a plot which would otherwise become another religious thriller. Like Malchus’s account of Jesus’s death, the end is entirely underwhelming, but that is, after all, the point.

In a tweet: If you find yourself the translator of a hot new Fifth Gospel, never do your own publicity.


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