27 February 2022

Amélie Nothomb's misrepresentations

“Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The quote was attributed to Einstein. At least that's how The Calculus with Analytic Geometry by Louis Leithold attributed it. It stuck to me because how often do you have a maths textbook with a provoking epigraph. As if the proofs of theorems were not enough for one to get mystified by. After the literary earnestness and apocalyptic sincerity of Benjamín Labatut's When We Cease to Understand the World, I feel like reading something more heady. Less serious, more witty. What else but a slice of death of Jesus Christ. Simple, but not simpler.

Jesus Christ was the topic of Thirst, Amélie Nothomb's nth novel, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2021). The story of the events leading to Jesus's crucifixion, told in the first person by a condemned incarnate, the omniscient son of God. 

Like any other non-devout book of fiction about Jesus, it was a riot of divine possibilities and novelistic (i.e., human) intervention. Jesus could peer into the future and foretell the cult surrounding his personality and the posthumous portrayal of his mysterious existence. In a self-critical way, Jesus was speaking in parables about living a simple and happy life and, indirectly, perhaps making a commentary about a mindful present bent on mining for cryptocurrencies and digging for NFTs. 

Or not. Whatever it is Nothomb was up to, she had weaponized the power granted to novelists to reinterpret the Passion of Christ and re-imagine a more plausible scenario or a simpler explanation of what transpired there on the cross, at the peak of Golgotha. 

Luke will write that I said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That’s a misinterpretation. It was myself I had to forgive: I am more at fault than men are, and it was not from my father that I sought forgiveness. 

I’m relieved I didn’t say it: it would have been condescending towards men. Condescension is the type of scorn I loathe the most. And frankly, I’m in no position to scorn humanity. 

Nor did I say to John (who was no more present at the time than the other disciples), “Behold thy mother,” nor did I say to my mother (who showed the kindness of being absent), “Woman, behold thy son.” John, I love you very much. But that does not mean you can go around spouting nonsense.

Nothomb's Jesus was challenging the official version. God's words no less, as recorded by his disciples. While doctrine makers had religiously exhausted the search for biblical meanings, the novelist still had time to make her own discoveries sacreligiously. A correction was in order: “I [Jesus] am responsible for the greatest misinterpretation in history, which is also the most deleterious.” We were at this juncture now, having lived in such a complicated network of data and information; we must long for the most simple and plausible explanations for our follies, wars, and savageries. 

“The power of love is sometimes so difficult to differentiate from all the other ambient currents. My father sent me here out of love for his creation. Find me a more perverse act of love.” In the tradition of José Saramago's satirical gospel of Jesus Christ, Nothomb produced a Saramagian miniature, perennially quotable and quick-witted, informed by the delicate differentiation of ambient feelings of love and friendship, the fifty gradations of gray areas in human relationships and interactions.

Thank God, Jesus was here depicted as every bit as sensual and self-aware as a human being. Otherwise, he would be God. Nothomb was a freelance evangelist. Unshackled by dogma, she could clarify and contextualize events and invert their original sense if need be. 

I’m pointing out these issues because this is not what will be written in the Gospels. ... The evangelists were nowhere near me when this happened. And regardless of what people have said, they didn’t know me. I’m not angry with them, but nothing is more irritating than those people who, under the pretext that they love you, claim that they know you inside out. 

Who could dare claim to know Jesus, the body politic? Unfathomable he must be, yet the novelist had him speak of practical and pragmatic things. There were a lot of nonsense already said about him. There were a lot of mediocrities and misinterpretations already. Admonishing the weeping women of Jerusalem, only in his thought of course, Jesus was all about practical steps to a fruitful life. 

It’s just that their sobs won’t let me breathe. How can we help someone? Certainly not by crying in front of them. Simon helped me, Veronica helped me. Neither one of them was crying. Nor did they have grins on their faces: they were taking concrete steps.

In Thirst, Nothomb was taking concrete steps, purposefully deviating from the official and definitive narratives in a language that was contemporary and direct. She had Jesus weigh and question every word at every turn: a balm against self-righteousness. 

Nothomb was bored by the official interpretations and stereotypes produced by excavators of meanings in the Bible. She had to make her own version just to shake things up a bit, with not a little bit of irony: “The judgement of mankind is so predictable that I admire everyone for taking themselves so seriously.” 

It must be hard to translate the humor too, but divine inspiration must have possessed the translator. Like Peter, the novella petered out at the end. But it was obvious the evangelist novelist was having fun. Who knows at the expense of whom? 

The only Evangelist who has shown talent as a writer worthy of the name is John. That is also why his words are the least reliable. “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst”: I never said it, it would have been a misrepresentation.



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