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The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère  

23 June 2017

Malcolm Doney reads a French agnostic’s self-referential novel

 

The Kingdom

Emmanuel Carrère

Allen Lane £20

(978-0-24-12005-75)

Church Times Bookshop £18

 

IT ISN’T unknown for an author to become the central figure in his or her own novel, but usually there is some attempt at disguise. In the case of The Kingdom, Emmanuel Carrère makes no pretence. He puts himself front and centre.

This book is a kind of mash-up of fiction, biography, autobiography, and theology. Carrère dives headlong into the history of the Early Church, carrying his own baggage with him. He sets out to get under the skin of the apostle Paul, and into the head of Luke, his chronicler. He retells their stories, inventing what isn’t already documented, and speculating, often quite freely, about the rest. But he is no neutral narrator: he writes transparently as a formerly devout believer, now turned agnostic.

Consequently, Carrère’s professional, personal, and emotional life — which he reveals with painful candour — turns this into more than a post-modern reflection on the architects of the Church, but a book about belief itself, which became a bestseller in his native France.

If there is a co-belligerent with the author in this tale, it is Luke. It is as if Carrère sees him as a fellow-traveller, the outsider who joins the other Gospel authors as “the only goy in the gang of four”. He finds Paul less simpatico: “Paul was a genius, also the kind of guy who time and again says things like ‘I have to admit, I have one big fault: I’m too honest’ or ‘I’m the most modest guy around.’ He was a boor, in fact . . . the opposite of Jesus.”

Readers who are familiar with the New Testament may weary of the author’s retelling, with sizeable biblical quotations, of the narrative of the Early Church, vivid though it is, and of Carrère’s tendency to lecture on the subject.

The fascination in the book is the author’s obsession with belief. He can’t quite drop it, or perhaps it won’t quite drop him: “I don’t believe Jesus was resurrected. I don’t believe that a man came back from the dead,” he writes. “But the fact that people do believe it — that I believed it myself — intrigues, fascinates, troubles and moves me.” He is at pains to avoid thinking that he’s better than those who believe, or better than his former self.

Part of his search is to find the bedrock beneath what he sees as the invention, the flimflam, the piety of Christianity. He certainly believes that he has struck something solid when he examines the pared-down Jesus that he finds in the “little compendium” of quotations from Jesus collected by the hypothetical Gospel source Q. Suppose that neither Paul nor Christianity existed, Carrère reflects, and all we had was this: “I think that we would be staggered by its originality, its poetry, its authoritative, self-evident tone, and . . . it would take its place among the great texts of human wisdom.” He adds, “if there is such a thing as a compass that can tell you at every moment in life wrong direction, this is it.”

The Kingdom may be narcissistic, infuriating, circuitous, and fatiguing, but ultimately it is written in good faith.

 

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a full-time freelance writer and editor.

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