Mailer's Christ falls prey to rage and lust

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The Independent Online
In The beginning was the Word, but Norman Mailer did not think it made for a particularly good read. So he took the New Testament as his raw material, much as Shakespeare did the works of Plutarch, and transformed it into literature.

Mr Mailer, one of America's more prolific authors, has just published The Gospel According to the Son, a novel narrating the story of Christ in the first person. His purpose, as he told interviewers last week, was to compensate for the gospels' failure to make the Christian God come convincingly alive. Mr Mailer's Christ is prey to doubt, rage, lust and pain, like any man.

"While I would not say that Mark's gospel is false, it has much exaggeration," the first chapter begins. "And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage."

Few things enrage him more than the greed of the rich, for this is a radical Christ, a revolutionary leader with a social conscience who despairs at the realisation that his disciples are as prone to greed, envy and vanity as any sinner.

"I had been looking for an army of men whose souls were so pure that they would need no swords," he writes. "Instead I had gathered a few followers who argued among themselves over who would sit to the right of me and who would be first when I was gone. So many miracles, so little gain."

Mr Mailer, himself no stranger to vanity, described himself in the New York Times last week as one of the five best novelists in America. A Jew from Brooklyn, 74 years old, he has had the temerity in the past to penetrate the minds of Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe, Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso. But his latest enterprise, as he told the newspaper, is "the largest dare of all".

America's Roman Catholic church has yet to pronounce on the book, but it is unlikely to take much delight from the chapter where Christ battles to restrain his desire in the presence of the harlot Mary Magdalene: "As I feared, she was beautiful ... My abhorrence of fornication had filled my years with thoughts of lust."

Mr Mailer does not shrink, either, from seeking to capture Christ's physical agony on the cross. But he achieves the effect powerfully in an understated style. "They drove a spike into each of my wrists and another through each of my feet. I did not cry out. But I saw the heavens divide. Within my skull, light glared at me until I knew the colours of the rainbow; my soul was luminous with pain."

It may be a while before The Gospel According to the Son achieves the universality of the Bible, but it is already a best- seller in America.