Friday, March 29, 2013

Malachi O'Doherty's "Iscariot": E-Book Review

This Belfast journalist's previous non-fiction combines memoir and cultural and political observation well. The Trouble With Guns astutely analyzed the Provisional IRA's machinations within the Northern power structures; The Telling Year: 1972 examined the tension as he reported for the press that dramatic year about his own neighborhood; I Was a Teenaged Catholic juxtaposed his Catholic upbringing with his stint under a Hindu guru in hippie-era India; Empty Pulpits treated the retreat from mainstream Catholic dominance over much of the island this past generation. I liked each one (see my 2009 reviews on this blog or Amazon British and/or US).

It's intriguing to trace similar tension within an earlier, far more mythologized time and place: Palestine under Roman occupation in the company of Yeshua. He's "almost your double," as the narrator, Judas, tells his twelve-year-old friend, "Ben Joe," son of Yusef and Mary. Judas' own father is suspected, in the taut opening scene, of collaboration with the empire. His son, humiliated at fourteen, vows "to kill a Roman soldier." Judas by small steps--a dove, a dog, and then by mock practice with his pal--learns to take life with a knife. Certainly the shift from Ben Joe's assistance with Judas in "operations" against troops and his next encounter, watching his "double" debating Temple elders about the Book of Jonah, demonstrates a bold take on Scriptural piety. We also see the insistent resonance that widens dissension between the two youths. The puzzler that Ben Joe articulates, as Judas filters it: do you do nothing for yourself, or do you resist authority?

The combination of today's colloquial and off-color dialogue with biblical scenes enlivens this tale. Ben Joe argues that it's no crime for guerrillas to murder in the name of an oppressed people, however futile the revenge. They panic and divide the outwitted Romans--"soldiers just flailed among themselves, like a woman who has startled bees"--and stab "at close quarters" as if it's bear-baiting.

Cana's wedding, the Magdalene, the parable of the steward, and the resemblance between a pretend and a genuine preacher in Galilee complicate matters in unexpected non-Scriptural fashion. At sixteen, Ben Joe joins the zealots. The next section puts the narrator under the headstrong, wasteful command of brutal Barabbas. Pacifism meets with annihilation; the Temple rabbis counsel cooperation with the occupation. Godless Barabbas presents a compulsive alternative: more revenge.

Before murdering a man, Judas reflects: "You must either try to ignore his character or look for something in it to hate, or you will not be able to kill him."  He tells of how people expect to see what they do, as sudden death follows predictable course to provoke reprisal and worsen oppression. The pointless slaughter drives him away from the zealots.

The narrative shoves us into the baptism of the Nazarene at the Jordan by John; but confusion persists who that new preacher might be, for Judas. Yeshua's Sermon on the Mount and the loaves and fishes, however, signal a transformation. Hope arrives for Judas. He learns to put down his decade of burden. The Nazarene's sensible message is as brief and straightforward as himself, and he soon leaves the crowds for the desert.

Ben Joe, now cynical and cruel, awaits in Capernaum, where he sends out followers to do miracles and shake up the establishment, so as to further his own "authenticity." He presumes to speak for the spirit, while Yeshua restored it and taught one to listen to it. You can see how this will unfold: the preacher advocating gentle, personal transformation vs. the one defiantly rallying communal fervor against injustice. Judas must decide which Galilean to go with, and this entangles his fate once more.

Martha and Mary assist him, and they all learn of a popular preacher's arrival. The story of the "woman caught in adultery" takes a deft twist, as does that of the Samaritan, Lazarus, the Prodigal Son, and rejections of the Pharisees under a clever imperium always looking after its own interests. Back in Judas' hometown of Nazareth, complications ensue as Yeshua visits the Rabbi's home, sees Mary the mother of James, and preaches at the synagogue. "Yeshua might be a prophet, perhaps the only one to our generation, and yet mimicry and gossip had made him ridiculous." The twinned relationship skews the biblical saga; its tilted representation keeps the reader as off guard as Judas.

The novel then deepens the mystery of appeals to a wavering one's "better nature." O'Doherty's Judas filters the author's unease at subservience to another, no matter how eloquent the message or assured the medium. Yeshua confronts Peter: "Who do you think I am?" Suffice to say that the later stages of the conventional Gospel tropes of an angry and a composed, wonder-working or contemplative Jesus, a thieving Barabbas, and the conflicted narrator gain integration enriched by imagination.

The final third takes place in Jerusalem, at the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur's autumnal timing doesn't align with the scriptural chronology naming Passover, but it allows O'Doherty to bring back the sisters and Lazarus at Bethany neatly, the cursing of the fig tree, and the entry by beast of burden into Jerusalem. It also helps him with the climactic rationale that Judas will confront. Driving out the traders from the holy precincts makes sense rearranged, as does the placement of the threat that a subversive preacher brings to the Roman citadel and Antipas and the power center of Jewish priests under Caiaphas. Parts in the home stretch, despite the natural excitement that accelerates as a fresh retelling keeps us wondering, did lag by comparison with O'Doherty's earlier revisions of the Gospel narratives. Lots of conversation slows this, as the author has to shuffle episodes around to move the logic along, and to connect characters who appeared earlier on with the action that adapts the Gospels. Admittedly, it's ambitious. Some characters felt too mustache-twiddling and backroom-conniving as villains, as the climax delays; energy lessens, explication grows. Still, you will read on, wondering how what we've long "known" of Judas' fate will square with this shape-shifting novel.

The kiss of Judas at Gethsemane earns pathos. The poignancy of the narrator's decision intersperses with the hardening of the heart. Contradictions within the Gospels, for O'Doherty's version, find commonsense solutions as he blends his fictional resolutions into those tales from the testaments--and those peddled by the apostles, Judas' "former friends." Wishing for an end, perhaps, may be salvation.

The matter-of-fact manner in which what's soon legendary starts as the mundane, mixed up by rumor by the credulous into the miraculous and manipulative, reminds me of the retellings of the Exodus and settlement of Canaan in Shulamith Hareven's trilogy Thirst (see my June 2012 review)."Iscariot" similarly reveals how it might have been, before sanctimony got the better of the secular struggles. (Kindle review to Amazon US 1-7-13)

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