Since reading Under The Skin a couple of years ago, I’ve loved Michel Faber. That book was one of the most shocking, unexpected and harrowing books I’d read for a long time – and still is – so I’m always excited at the prospect of reading a new Faber.
The The Fire Gospel is a slight book, just a couple of hundred pages, unlike the epic and excellent The Crimson Petal and The White , but he crams in some pretty big ideas, a bit of humour and a pretty damning commentary on 21st century religion.
The book opens with academic Theo Griepenkerl, an expert in ancient Aramaic, in Iraq, exploiting the chaos of the Iraqi occupation and trying to gather up as many antiquities as he can for his Canadian Museum employer.
After an explosion knocks our overweight, middle aged and slightly bumbling Theo to the ground, a statue is smashed, and Theo finds a roll of papyrus that was sealed inside. He hides them away and returns to Canada, the scrolls burning a hole in his briefcase, where he sets about translating them. As he translates, he realises he has found the memoirs of one of Jesus’ contemporaries, a foul mouthed and at times incoherent man called Malchus.
The more he translates, the more he is convinced he is sitting on a gold mine, believing his translation could be a publishing phenomenon, despite being only 30 pages long. A new gospel, written at the time of Jesus’ death, not some 40-60 years after his crucifixion. Theo rubs his hands with glee and set about writing the book. His determination to make money blinkers him to the potential consequences such a book could have on the world. But Theo ploughs on regardless. And it causes a few ripples, not least because of the description of Jesus begging to die while being crucified, among other sections that challenge the belief system of the church.
There are hilarious touches as Faber’s minimalist prose describes Theo’s bumbling journey from anonymous academic to Public Enemy Number One, not least his struggle to get published in the first place.(There are some great attacks on the publishing industry here). When he finally gets it printed, he starts a wave of outrage, religious zeal and daytime television debate that makes him squirm and panic, as it dawns on him what he has done – and it’s fun to track Theo as he stumbles through a series of embarrassing events, leading to an unexpected final act.
Faber’s caustic humour and satirical bent bring funny and poignant messages on the role of religion and commercialism in modern society, making this an easy to read and fun little novel. But at only 208 pages, you’re left feeling a little under-fed.
(I couldn’t resist putting a link to Amazon in this review. Read the book and you’ll see why.)