Monday, November 8, 2010

'The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ' by Philip Pullman

Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, a small qualm I have with this book: the 245 pages of the paperback edition contain some of the widest margins I have ever encountered, with a full inch to either side of the text, and about an inch and a half at the top and the bottom. This, coupled with the fact that each short chapter tends to conclude halfway down a page and is followed by a blank page (included in the page numbering) mean that the book is presented as a full-blown novel, though a more environmentally-concerned publisher could probably print the content on 60 or less pages without reducing its legibility. I have read longer short stories than this entire book, which leads me to believe that Canongate were being more than a little cynical by finding a way of duping people into spending around twelve euros on what is really a very slender novella. Clever.

What's left of this book when you cut out the excess paper is intriguing. Pullman retells New Testament stories by imagining the figure of Jesus as twins: the wholesome, well-intentioned preacher 'Jesus', and the sickly, shady 'Christ' - who recognises the potential for power that his brother's charisma represents, and reports on his actions to a mysterious stranger. Events, unsurprisingly, lead towards the crucifixion of Jesus, and it is only here that the story deviates significantly from the gospel stories as we know them and the sinister undertones of Christ's meetings with the stranger are brought starkly into the light. Most powerful of all is Jesus' lengthy soliloquy in the Garden of Gethsemane, in which Pullman's own atheistic viewpoint is shown both in a manner both strident and measured:

‘And slander’s what it is; you made this world, and it’s lovely, every inch if it. When I think of these things I’ve loved I find myself choking with happiness, or maybe sorrow, I don’t know; and every one of them has been something in this world that you made. If anyone can smell frying fish on an evening by the lake, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day, or see a little animal trying to run around and tumbling over and getting up again, or kiss a pair of soft and willing lips, if anyone can feel those things and still maintain they’re nothing but crude imperfect copies of something much better in another world, they are slandering you, Lord, as surely as words mean anything at all.’

The last line of the above quote also shows Pullman's awareness of the historical context of the story, with a clear reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. He shows himself to be generally well-informed when it comes to biblical scholarship and is largely respectful of it. He does, however, pick and choose when to go with the facts as they are generally accepted, and when to twist things slightly to fit his own narrative purposes. This is probably fair enough, as this book is ultimately one about storytelling, but it makes for a confusing blend of myth and history at times (the book is sold as part of Canongate's Myth series). Much like the New Testament, many would claim. The compelling question for me is whether Pullman is aware of Albert Schweitzer's findings in his book 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus' that anyone who postulates too much on the precise character and ideology of the historical Jesus ends up projecting their own personality onto him. I would warrant that Pullman is aware of this, and has taken the opportunity to quite openly use the figure of Jesus as a mouthpiece for his own philosophy and thoughts about organised religion.

Fortunately, it's a lucid and compelling one, well worth the money despite its brevity.