Noted for his combination of passionate storytelling and scientific themes, Simon Mawer tackles a challenging set of problems in his new novel "The Gospel of Judas." In "Mendel's Dwarf" (1998), he built a fictional world around genetics; this time, it's the science of paleography, the study of ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, and writings.
At the center of this novel is Leo Newman, a Catholic priest and a specialist in the newly discovered scrolls that have been revolutionizing the interpretation of the Bible.
When yet another scroll is discovered, Leo agrees to translate it. Meanwhile, in his private life, he has fallen in love with the wife of a diplomat.
As it turns out, either one of these events would have been enough to shake Leo's faith, not to mention alert his superiors to his personal crisis. And Leo's personal crisis had the potential to shake an already shaken Christendom, or so it seems to Leo.
As background to this larger dilemma, through a series of historical flashbacks, we are introduced to a German Nazi officer and his family living in Italy during World War II.
Here, as in the main plot, the issues are loyalty, discipline, and the self-justifying realm of the senses. By the end of the novel, this subplot has become crucial to our understanding of Leo Newman.
Though we do learn interesting information about biblical paleography and its impacts on the fragmenting world of Christianity, the novel's themes are fully embodied in story, and the story in particular characters.
At times, the reader feels physically wrenched by the events in the novel. The spareness of the prose and the unresolvable tension of the situations can catch your breath.
"Leo didn't sleep that night," Mawer writes. "He needed no nightmares. Inured to solitude, he had never felt so lonely in his life. He lay in bed - an anonymous hotel bed with a mattress as hard as in a monk's cell - and he battled with the text that he had deciphered."
Mawer is a self-conscious stylist. His timing is impeccable; his paragraphs luminous in what they don't say as well as in what they do. Sometimes, his penchant for triads becomes distracting. And yet, for the most part, these syntactic series are tiny works of art in themselves.
Notice the rhythm and sense of proportion in this passage: "The thing disturbed him. The whole matter of the scroll, with its plain, insistent voice, its lack of appeal to the miraculous or the fantastic, its plain historical witness, all of it disturbed him."
What disturbs Leo, and his colleagues, along with the rest of the world, which is impatiently (indeed, murderously) awaiting the news, is his discovery that the scroll suggests that Jesus did not survive the Crucifixion.
In any event, Leo's interpretation of the scroll deals a body blow to his own already weakened religious faith.
Indeed, it is a measure of Mawer's profound grasp of what is essentially human that the reader sticks with Leo to the end. Through two women - the first involving him in an adulterous affair that ends tragically and seals Leo's sense of guilt, the second a memorable counterweight to the first - Leo becomes a "new man." Both women are drawn on the model of the Magdalene. (The wife of the Nazi officer in the flashbacks adds a third complex female character and perhaps the most compelling of the three.)
The object of Leo's awakened passion, a woman of decidedly patchy background, becomes the vehicle of his redemption. In the end, Leo's "resurrection" casts doubt on the inevitability of his personal and professional crisis and provides a moment in which the whole novel turns inside out. The effect of writing this fine is intensely pleasurable.
"The Gospel of Judas" establishes Simon Mawer as a world-class novelist. Faithful to the world as fact, "The Gospel of Judas" shows how our emotional dependence on fact dehumanizes us. Mawer's use of the novel to explore social, political, intimate, and religious history reveals the power of this genre to redeem the present.
Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor