In another country, in another culture and with another religion under discussion, the event would be explosive. Here we have the country’s leading literary figure, Margaret Atwood, stepping forward to endorse a new book so blasphemous it makes Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses read like the work of a believer.
But outrage is scant among the few dozen shoppers who have gathered in the basement of Toronto’s midtown Indigo bookstore to hear Atwood interview Naomi Alderman, author of The Liars’ Gospel. Alderman’s third novel boldly renovates the New Testament by proposing four fictional gospels to go along with the familiar four, bringing the story to vivid life in a way that makes total sense while pretty much destroying its religious mystique.
Based on imagined first-person accounts of the times by Jesus’s non-virginal mother Miryam, his betrayer (Iehuda from Qeriot), the terrorist Bar-Avo (Barabbas) and the high priest Caiaphas, The Liars’ Gospel is a testament brilliantly suited for secular humanists schooled in social realism.
None of Alderman’s witnesses is any more reliable than those who did write the story. The question of the Resurrection is left open. But one thing comes through, which Alderman helpfully sums up for her audience: “Nobody’s miracles are real.”
But Canadians are so polite – either that or fatally irreligious. Besides, all Atwood really wants to talk about is zombies. It seems that not only is Alderman a brilliant writer and formidable scholar, capable of reading and speaking Hebrew, Latin, Ancient Greek and “a bit of Aramaic,” she is also co-creator of Zombies, Run!, a popular fitness game app that gives runners wearing headphones detailed instructions on how to defend the last shivering remnant of humanity in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.
The friendship between Atwood and Alderman began when organizers of the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative picked Alderman for their program, which finances a year of collaboration with a master in an emerging artist’s field.
At 38, with two novels already behind her, the British author felt no pressing need for a mentor. But there was one person, she says in an interview in Atwood’s favourite Bloor Street restaurant, who she thought might help with her current project: “a piece of feminist science fiction of the kind that people wrote in the 1970s.”
Who else? And so, without telling Alderman, the Rolex people arranged it. “The only person I had in my mind was Margaret Atwood,” Alderman says. Last week, her sci-fi novel was laid out in piles of paper on the living-room floor of Atwood’s Annex home, and the two have become fast friends.
Meanwhile, back in Judea, the natives are revolting.
The Jews were a thorn in the side of empire who refused to accept “the Roman franchise model” and “rebelled in increasingly violent ways,” Alderman tells her audience. The Liars’ Gospel is a blood-drenched story of political strife in which the mission of Yehoshuah (Jesus), “a wandering healer and teacher,” is almost marginal. The rigorous realism of Alderman’s treatment is such that none of her narrators understands the ultimate significance of the stories they tell – or even who the hero might be.
Judas is the only character in The Liars’ Gospel whose historical existence is unproven, but he is also the one with whom Alderman, scandalously, most identifies. “I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and now I’m not an Orthodox Jew,” she says. “So I have sympathy for people who lose their faith.” Without absolving his betrayal, the author interpolates the existing gospels in a way that makes it perfectly understandable.
Plausibility runs deep in The Liars’ Gospel, which manages to make sense where theology mystifies and leaves no opening for pedants. As a teenager, Alderman read Ovid in Latin for laughs. Her research for the novel included two university courses to brush up her ancient Greek and a close analysis of contemporary histories and holy texts in various languages.
She used translation “to crack open the ambiguities of meaning” she encountered and nourished herself throughout the process with nothing but the seven biblical foods.
“It’s very sheep-centred,” she tells Atwood. “Hyssop is very good.”
And by the end of it, she gained respect for the man history has deemed the hero of this story. “This novel, which really holds up Jesus – I’ve held him in my hand, I’ve turned him around, I’ve had a look at him from every angle,” Alderman says. “And in the end, I think, ‘Do you know what? Love your enemy. That’s pretty good.’
“Thinking about the reasons for the Commandments, thinking about what it might mean to be able to get to know God in that way. These are great thoughts.”
And if people choose to believe Jesus rose from the dead, so be it. Alderman follows Mark, who left the question open in his original account.
“I don’t want to say to people, ‘No, definitely, he did not rise up from the dead,’” Alderman says. “That would be a boring and polemical book.” Her aim is “to just open up the variety of options that could have happened. Then people can think about it for themselves.”
Editor's note: Naomi Alderman was quoted as saying: “I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and now I’m not a Jew," in the original version of this article. This version has corrected the quote to: “I grew up an Orthodox Jew, and now I’m not an Orthodox Jew."