Very Naughty Messiah
Phelan, Laurence, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
***** Jesus Christ: The Gospels Presented by Terry Eagleton Verso Pounds 7.99
Verso's "Revolutions" series, which includes Slavoj Zizek introducing Mao, Trotsky and Robespierre and Geoffrey Robertson introducing the Levellers, now expands to take in the New Revised Standard Version of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with an introduction by Terry Eagleton. It's the most interesting in the series, not just because Eagleton is on such good form - iconoclastic, intellectually spry and eloquent - but because Jesus's revolutionary credentials are the least well established. "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," He said (Matthew 10:34), and He certainly kept what Eagleton calls "some shady political company" (mentioning no names, Simon the Zealot). But why, if they were known insurrectionists, were His disciples not rounded up after His execution and arrested?
Jesus leaves others to label Him, and "there is a sense throughout the text of His deliberately evading definition." He never claims to be the Son of God, except once, "implausibly", in Mark. Nor does He claim to be the Messiah, which in first-century Jerusalem would have been understood as a warrior-king kind of figure. Born in a stable and crucified on the cross, Jesus, says Eagleton, was "a sick joke of a Messiah", and his arrival in Jerusalem on an ass a "satirical" anti-Messianic gesture. He probably saw himself as the prophet foretold by the Old Testament, whose arrival would herald the advent of the Kingdom of God.
There is no room in an early first-century worldview for historical self-determinism, which is why Jesus cannot be a revolutionary in the sense that, say, Lenin was. The Kingdom of God was coming whether people wanted it to or not; Jesus was just there to prepare them for it. Etymologically, then, as well as because of His utterly extraordinary actions and teachings, it comes to make sense to call Him, as Eagleton does, an avant-gardist.
My Tango with Barbara Strozzi
By Russell Hoban
Russell Hoban is an author of mythopoeic fantasy, sci-fi and magical realist fictions (the excellent Riddley Walker, for example) that are supported by complex frameworks of reference of his own invention. But in his latest, an offbeat romance between a blocked novelist and an artist's model turned painter of eyeballs, it turns out that Barbara Strozzi, the 17th-century Venetian singer with whom the male protagonist is obsessed, was real. The numerous other esoteric cultural, theological, mythological and astrological references that litter the text all checked out too, and the story is firmly grounded in the specificity of modern London living: pizza deliveries, District line tube journeys and bottles of wine from Waitrose.
Yet this is a love story that exists almost entirely in its lead characters' minds. The action tends to happen while they are apart, in that early stage of a romance between two people who've been disappointed in the past in which they warily circle around one another. My Tango is a deceptively complex novel of ideas, about reality, identity and ontology, that is only masquerading as a sweetly simple boy meets girl story.
By Ray French
A man goes into an undertakers and asks for a coffin. Aidan Walsh isn't dying, but since his wife died he hasn't exactly been living either, so on hearing that the electronics factory which is his place of work and the only major employer in the bleak Welsh town where he lives is set to close down, he decides to stage a symbolic protest, burying himself in his back garden and refusing to be disinterred until the workers' jobs are saved. …