I like retellings. There is something intensely satisfying in having another version of an old, known story presented. It must be an echo of the times when each story was retold every time as there was no writing - but of course the modern retelling is usually one with a twist, often subversive, ironic and frequently iconoclastic. Retellings are post-modern by definition, playing with old texts, turning them around, putting them in front of mirrors so they reflect themselves and their interpretations in a never-ending sequence. But retellings are also old, as old as story itself, in their search for the final version, the ultimate, the truth.
Retellings are dangerous things: I don't think I will ever take any orthodox version of the Arthurian story seriously, not after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon; and I have purposefully not read Kiryl Yeskov's The Last Ring Bearer as I know that those who did never managed to look at the Tolkien's original with the same eyes.
The Christian story, perhaps more than anything else apart from the Greek myths, has inspired countless retellings in European literature; and not surprisingly as the story of Christ and his teachings has such a supreme importance in our whole literary, religious and philosophical tradition. Even among the canonical Gospels there are four, and with subtle (and not so subtle) differences between them. C.K. Stead's novel is a Gospel retelling: a clever, subversive and a provocative one; and if you have an open mind and like playing with ideas you are likely to enjoy it.
As the title suggests, this version of the story is told by Judas, who, contrary to the canonical Gospel version, had not committed suicide but left Galilee to live under the name of Idas in a small coastal village of Sidon, married to a Greek and fathering Greek children. Having lived to the age of seventy and with his memory stimulated by the combination of the news of razing of Jerusalem after the fall of a Jewish uprising and a visit from a travelling evangelist Judas (or Idas) is recalling the seminal events of forty years ago and earlier.
From their childhood and youth together in Nazareth to the three year period of Jesus' preaching that ended on Calvary, Judas remembers Jesus vividly and presents a convincing picture of a brilliant mind with an extraordinary talent for the Word and a truly charismatic ability to inspire loyalty, faith and love. He draws on the possible association with the Essenes brotherhood as one of the sources of Jesus' philosophy, but mostly concentrates on showing how the combination of Jesus' unique personal talents, the education full of texts from the Scriptures and the childhood and youth lived in the double shadow of the Roman temporal power and the spiritual might of Israel's God could result in Jesus becoming the preacher he became.
He also shows how such a preacher could - almost inevitably - be carried by the powerful need of the crowds: the need for the miracles, the need for the Jewish Messiah, for the Son of God to appear - to start believing himself to be the one.
But of course, it's Judas's story. It's told from a dignified, wise and quietly resigned perspective of a confirmed rationalist, an agnostic who has embraced what was best in the Greek culture and got rid of the most of the superstitious "emanations". When Judas speaks of God, it's often "God, if there is God".
Interestingly, and I think meaningfully, the facts never - apart of course from the fact that Judas was not the Betrayer and did not commit suicide - directly contradict the canonical Gospels. Although Judas claims to never have seen any miracles as such and provides rather well conceived interpretations for the Biblical ones, he never denies any events outright. They are all there, the impressing of the priests as a child in the Temple, the wedding, the raising of Lazarus, the calming of the insane, the embrace of Mary Magdalene: all with Judas's own sceptical interpretations, but all there. Even the empty tomb is a fact, though of course explained conveniently by very non-spiritual means.
This gives space to the possibility that these rationalist explanations are but one side of the tale. Although Judas is very convinced that he's telling the Truth, we know that it's just his version; and from the believer's point of view, his story can be seen as a cry of quiet despair from somebody unable to believe and whose "betrayal" consisted of the inability to believe. One cannot help but think, that although now reasonably happy and settled in his serene, rationalist agnosticism, Judas could have been and would have been tempted by the exaltations of faith if the grace to believe had been given to him.
The questions asked in the novel are important for any Christian: the nature and sources of belief, the variation between the gentle and the fiery teachings of Christ, the fundamental issue of evil in the world; and the one about the silence of God in the face of unimaginable suffering which is also crucial for post-Holocaust Judaism.
Ultimately, though, My Name Was Judas is a story about stories and how they are told, and about the power of the Word, the power that led to the rise of Jesus the prophet and that was, quite literally, the death of him.
It's told in a extremely convincing voice - cultured and humane, wise but with a remaining streak of intellectual arrogance, tempered by age but still present. The narration consists of a mixture of Judas's current thought and activities with a series of flashbacks that tell the main story, but the clarity of writing is such that the jumps from current to past events don't cause any confusion.
The landscape and people of Palestine are evoked vividly in simple, clear, beautiful prose, without flourishes but with a power to transport us to there and then.
My Name Was Judas is a stimulating novel that is likely to make the reader think: either pondering the possible validity of Judas's retelling or simply enjoying a good story skilfully told.
Apart from the original Gospels, there are echoes of other retellings there, from Bulgakov's Master and Margarita to the Life of Brian though you don't need to know them to enjoy the novel. I do think you need to know the Bible version to enjoy and appreciate My Name Was Judas. Not word-for-word or verse by verse perhaps, but more than "Jesus was born in a manger, then preached and performed miracles and then died on the cross". Otherwise the joys of satisfying recognition along the lines of "oh, that's how Judas tells THAT bit" will pass you by and with that half of the enjoyment.
It's not the best or most inspiring of Gospel retellings I know: despite all its good qualities it lacks a certain spark that would raise it to the truly great, those that would make you always doubt the original (or any other version); but it's a compelling enough one and at less than 250 pages of beautiful, clear prose certainly worth reading.
Paperback, 256 pages, Harvill Secker (2 Nov 2006)
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This review was originally written for www.thebookbag.co.uk