Book Review: The Fire Gospel by Michel Faber

the fire gospelTheo Griepenkerl is a modest academic with an Olympian ego. When he visits a looted museum in Iraq, looking for treasures he can ship back to Canada, he finds nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. Once translated from Aramaic, these prove to be a fifth Gospel, written by an eye-witness of Jesus Christ’s last days. But when Theo decides to share this sensational discovery with the world, he fails to imagine the impact the new Gospel will have on Christians, Arabs, homicidal maniacs and Amazon customers. Like Prometheus’s gift of fire, it has incendiary consequences.
The Fire Gospel is an enthralling novel about the power of words to resonate across centuries, and inspire and disrupt in equal measure. Wickedly provocative, hilarious and shocking by turns, it is a revelatory piece of storytelling.

This is a short book, at 210 pages (Ironically – perhaps knowingly – matching the book’s internal publisher who states that “The Fifth Gospel …. with wide margins and large spacing”).

Theo is an academic, a translator of Aramaic, who believes – rightly or wrongly – that he’s the best in the West, and probably the East too. He is remarkably un-self-aware, whilst also self-centred, so does not care for the curator of the Mosul museum, even after the man gets himself blown up whilst escorting Theo round the damaged museum. He doesnt really care that (rather why) his girlfriend has dumped him before he even returns to Canada. He cant understand why all the major publishers wont touch his translation, but gets angry when a small publishing house offers him *only* 250,000 dollars to publish what is, in effect, stolen goods.  All he cares about is the translation of the 9 scrolls he found hidden in the belly of a pregnant woman statue.

Theo goes from zero to a sensation in the matter of weeks, and the effect of the book on the general population has unpredictable results.  The scrolls found in the Mosul Museum, once translated, tell the story of Jesus from a first hand witness and it’s not what people expected or hoped for.   Jesus was a man, who was crucified, and died on a cross having emptied his bowels and bladder down the cross. He didn’t die surrounded by his apostles, just with a number of lesser known women who turned up each day. He wasn’t buried in a stone covered grave, and wasnt resurrected on the third day. The scribe of the scrolls was a gossip and a spy, who didn’t really follow Jesus and was a sick, boring man when he wrote his story.

Theo goes on a promotional tour, and becomes almost Christ like (if you believe Malachi) in what happens: his word and fame spreads out of control; his Amazon reviews and unbelievable (and as badly spelt as you would think); people are prepared to kill others and themselves over what they believe the message is; and Theo finds himself captured, tied up, covered in crap and forced to denounce his work before being shot and let outside to die; thankfully he gets on his way to the hospital where it seems he dies, only to be brought back to life.

Not a laugh out loud book, but one that passes a day in reading and has some decent analogies of living in a modern world where you can make friends and enemies without ever meeting them, and things are often outside of you control and that can have devastating results.

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