‘The Fire Gospel’ by Michel Faber


Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 213 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Fire Gospel, due to be published on November 6, is the long-awaited novel from Michel Faber, the author of the oh-so delicious (and my favourite book of the year so far) The Crimson Petal and The White.

This new book is part of Canongate’s The Myths series, launched in 2005, in which “some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing”. The Fire Gospel is therefore a reworking of the myth of Prometheus, who supposedly brought the gift of fire to humanity against the wishes of Zeus, who said fire belonged to the gods alone. As punishment Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle. Charming.

In Faber’s hands, the myth takes on a much more modern, and occasionally hilarious, focus. While on a trip to war-torn Iraq, Theo Griepenkerl, an academic from Canada, accidentally discovers nine papyrus scrolls that have lain hidden for two thousand years. He smuggles them back to Toronto and begins to translate them from Aramaic. They turn out to be a secret, never-before-published fifth gospel that has the power to turn Christianity on its head.

Eager for publicity — and untold riches — Theo seeks out a publisher willing to take a risk on publishing his sensational discovery. But when every mainstream press turns him down he has to resort to convincing the relatively obscure text-book publisher Elysium that it’s worth printing. This is despite the fact that the firm’s biggest bestseller so far has been Sing Times Seven, a book written by a Norwegian school teacher about games parents should play with their children to teach them arithmetic.

‘My book isn’t about teaching dogs geometry,’ Theo reminded him. ‘For God’s sake, Mr Baum, it’s a new Gospel! It’s a previously unknown account of the life and death of Jesus, written in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. In fact, it will be the only Gospel written in Aramaic: the others are in Greek. And it’s earlier than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, years earlier. I can’t understand why publishers aren’t falling over themselves to put it out — 99.99 per cent of books aren’t important, not really. This one is.”

When The Fifth Gospel is eventually published, sales go through the roof and Theo becomes a celebrity doing the rounds of talk shows and author signings. Some of the funniest bits occur when Theo checks the reader reviews on Amazon, complete with misspellings and untempered opinions:

Julia Argandona, of Costa Mesa, CA, offered the following appreciation (which ’17 of 59′ customers apparently found ‘helpful’): I haven’t read this book yet but I can’t wait to read it so I am reviewing it early. The other people on Amazon who say don’t read it are brainwashed stooges of the Catholic religion, which has been sexually abusing children for 100’s of years. Who needs it? I already LOVE this book.

But it doesn’t take long before the wrath of Christians and other religious groups puts his life in danger. He might not have to endure the whole eagles-pecking-his-liver torture to which Prometheus was subjected, but it’s not far off…

I laughed a lot while reading this book. It’s wicked and provocative. But in some respects it feels a bit too knowing, a bit too clever (I hesitate to use the term smart alec). I got the sense that Faber wasn’t just poking fun at religion but was also taking a pop at the publishing game, specifically its obsession with sales figures and marketing. Us readers get a bit of a drubbing too.

The Fire Gospel is a fun read, but it is definitely not in the same league as Faber’s previous masterpiece, The Crimson Petal and The White. And if you are religious and easily offended by Jesus spoofs you’d best avoid it altogether.

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