The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber

The Fire Gospel

In The Fire Gospel, one of the more recent installments in the Myths series, Michel Faber uses as inspiration the myth of Prometheus. Theo Griepenkerl is a Canadian academic specializing in Aramaic linguistics who travels to Iraq to make a deal with a museum in Mosul: send your artifacts to Toronto, where we will display and protect them for a few years while you rebuild your facilities (and the rest of your country). But as he’s touring the museum, the building is attacked and the curator killed.

Looking for a place to hide until the firing stops, Theo heads to the basement toilets.

He was halfway down the spiral stairs when he noticed that a wall-mounted, heavily pregnant bas-relief goddess he’d admired on his first trip down had been damaged in the blasts. Her belly—unexpectedly hollow—had been cracked open like an egg. He looked down at the floor of the basement where the shards of stone had fallen.

In amongst the shards, loosely swaddled in cloth, lay nine scrolls of papyrus.

Those scrolls turn out to be a new gospel, the Gospel of Malchus. Theo keeps his mouth shut, secretes the scrolls back to Toronto, authenticates them, and begins translating. One of the most arrogant protagonists I’ve ever read, he’s surprised when publishers don’t jump at the chance to print Malchus’s ugly little tale. A sample:

Brothers and sisters in the Messiah! I write these words in lowest wretchedness; I hope that you will read them in highest gladness. My belly is afflicted with constant pains, and food passes through me without giving nourishment. The gnawing in my guts allows me no sleep. Four months I have been like this. My flesh is yellow, my eyes are yellow, the hairs fall from my head, and my innards make noises when all else is quiet. I scratch at my skin like a dog. Praise the Lord! Were it not for this mission he has chosen me for, I would be long dead and in the grave, I am certain!

But enough of my body and its ailments.

Enough indeed. I do think Faber’s grotesque vision of this gospel is pitch perfect, but I can certainly see why it would upset some people when it, along with Theo’s commentary, hits the bestseller lists. Malchus actually knew Jesus; he was in Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. But his account of the crucifixion and its aftermath are heterodox to say the least.

Despite Theo’s lackluster book-touring abilities and generally awful personality, copies fly off the shelves. Theo is so hot now he’s able to get over his long-term girlfriend’s leaving him by sleeping with his super-sexy editor/guide. Theo’s personality mostly grates—though that’s not a bad thing, it’s meant to—but sometimes his snarkiness deserves a nod and a smile, as when he notes “the latest bestsellers about…the national trauma of 9/11 refracted with unbearable poignancy through a literary fable about an anorexic New York teenager and her imaginary friend Kuki.”

Other things are more frustrating, even accounting for the character’s curmudgeonliness. Theo is supposedly an avowed atheist, willing to publish Malchus’s gospel without a second thought because he has no respect for Christianity, yet he believes “a higher agency wanted him to have [the scrolls], that much was clear.” What a flip-flopper. Later on, Theo is shot (probably in the liver). But he’s shot with a “bullet” fired by a shotgun. I mean, not exactly impossible, but calling it a “slug” would have been more authentic—even a sheltered academic could do better than this with all the linguistic pet peeves he has.

The angle this all takes on the Prometheus myth is what the consumption partner just referred to as the Die Physiker (Dürrenmatt) interpretation. Theo had his hands on something radical, and should have been circumspect. He should have realized that unleashing “the fire gospel” (so-called because of the book burnings it inspires) on the world would rock people’s faith, upset them terribly, and cause them to commit violence against each other and himself. He should have known better. Prometheus’s real crime in giving humans fire wasn’t in disobeying Zeus, but in giving flawed creatures a new tool to kill each other with.

I don’t care much for this reading of Prometheus to begin with, and I think this particular update is a terrible venue for it. I believe “that which can be destroyed by the truth should be,” circumspection be damned. Theo hasn’t uncovered a dangerous new technology, but an authentic artifact of the past. But our extremely antipathetic truth-bringer is turned around by what he’s done to nice, regular people, and develops a pretty obscene case of Stockholm syndrome to boot.

The writing here is more than serviceable, and again, Faber does an especially good job with the gospel itself. Theo is easily hateable, but one would do well not to confuse the protagonist with the author—free indirect style does not the writer equally hateable make. There is not much “wow” factor for me in the writing, though, and as a whole the book felt extremely topical. Iraq War, Da Vinci Code-style controversy, that sort of thing. Not bad per se, but the chance of this seeming dated after a few years looks higher than for the other Myths books—something I at least would think undesireable for this series.