May 2001


By Simon Mawer
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sands through the hourglass If ol' Fred Nietzsche were around to review Simon Mawer's The Gospel of Judas, he'd probably say with a nod to fellow philosopher Yogi Berra “See? What'd I tell you? It's eternal recurrence all over again!” I don't mean to poke fun at Mawer's excellent novel, but merely to indicate that Nietzsche's notion of “eternal recurrence,” as commonly conceived, can profitably be used to view it. There may be other ways, but the book has about it a lot of what Nietzsche called the “eternal hourglass of existence” that is continually being “turned over and over and you with it, a mere grain of dust.” Further, in The Gospel of Judas, time is not linear, like the idea of time that has come down to us from Aristotle through Judeo-Christian teaching, but circular and cyclical, like Nietzsche's time. The novel shifts fluidly back and forth from World War II to the present day, and it definitely has much to do with Christianity.

Leo Newman is a Roman Catholic priest, British but living in Rome. A renowned scholar of biblical-era texts, he is summoned to Jerusalem to decipher a recently found scroll that appears to have been written by Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. Leo quickly senses that the scroll is genuine and literally devastating to Christianity.

At this time Leo, who is apparently 50-ish, embarks on his first sexual affair. The woman, named Madeleine, is Catholic and the wife of a British diplomat. She is one element in the “potent sense of womanhood” that informs Leo's life. Indeed, the novel gives off a muted sensation of must more than that, of the ancient fear that women are not only sexual predators but the very occasion for sin.

A leitmotif of repetition and reflection accompanies the time/eternal recurrence theme. The Leo-Madeleine affair reflects the affair that the priest's mother, Gretchen, also a Catholic and the wife of a (German) diplomat, has with an Italian Jew named Francesco during World War II.

This leitmotif, in turn, is entwined with the book's and Leo's obsession with word origins and names. For instance, Yerushalem (Jerusalem), the author tells us, is not from shalom, the Hebrew for peace, but from the Canaanite god, Shalem.

While these explanations are a treat to come across, they amount to more than mere intellectualizing. Leo's working life is one of words “Had he always feared that as soon as he teased at the words that made up his faith, the whole fabric would unravel?” and, as he tells Madeleine at one of their first meetings, “In this business you always start with the name. Names always had meanings.” Darn right they did, and do. Madeleine is a form of Magdalene, Mary Magdalene, the reformed and repentant whore of the New Testament. So is Magda, an artist and whore with whom Leo later shares an apartment.

A priest of Christ who takes up with two women named for the woman who, aside from Mary, is most associated with Christ. As Leo works at translating the scroll, one of them, Madeleine, stands figuratively at his shoulder, just as “her namesake had been there at the discovery of the opened tomb.” All of this would be mere symbol-dropping and parading of knowledge if the author did not make it so much of a piece. Tightly constructed is not the right term; try seamless. Mawer, author of Mendel's Dwarf and several other novels, has produced tightly woven, brilliantly matching narrative threads that make up a splendid cloth. And for good measure, the scroll mystery adds a nice thriller element.

Like all good modern authors, Mawer lets us make of it what we will. “Was it here,” Leo wonders as he pores over the papyrus, “that the history of Christianity would finally come to an end?” The weight of the book's evidence would seem to point to one answer yes.

However, also like all good modern authors, Mawer's true concern is not the cosmic and infinite, but the immediate and human. The priest of Christ, not Christ, animates this book.

In the final pages we learn that toward the end of the war Gretchen has taken the name “Mrs. Newman” names, after all, always had meanings and that Leo, the child with which she is pregnant, is “a kind of resurrection.” He is also, you will discover, a kind of eternal recurrence.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

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The Gospel of Judas

The Gospel of Judas

By Simon Mawer
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316097505

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