As part of Canongate's series of short novels based on myths, "The Fire Gospel" is nominally linked to the story of Prometheus. Like Prometheus, Michel Faber's main character steals something incendiary and is terribly punished for his transgression. But Faber's hapless Canadian linguistic scholar, Theo Griepenkerl, does not suffer the Promethean fate of being chained to a rock and having his liver repeatedly devoured by a bird of prey. His is a different kind of pain. In keeping with Faber's more modern idea of torment, Theo has to contend with Amazon.com's idiotic customer reviews of his book.
That book is an earth-shaking religious tract. It is created by a strange twist of fate. Theo is in Iraq, trying to wheedle relics away from a museum curator in Mosul, when an explosion wreaks havoc in the place. The curator is killed, the bas-relief likeness of a goddess splits open and out of the sculpture's belly come nine previously hidden papyrus scrolls. When Theo translates them, a job for which he is well equipped because "Aramaic was his baby," he stumbles onto something momentous. He appears to have found a fifth Gospel, a new account of the crucifixion.
Theo seizes on the publishing potential of this discovery. But it's not an easy sell. "I only approached two agents," he claims, "or five, if you count the three that didn't answer my calls." Finally an academic publisher called Elysium takes the bait. Elysium has had only one bestseller, a book that could not be less like the turgid ravings of Theo's scroll writer, Malchus.
Until this point, Malchus was best known for the severing of his ear in the Gospel of John. On the evidence of the scrolls' prose style ("that is to say, the man called Malchus is unworthy, the man called Malchus deserves no more attention than a dead dog in the street,") Malchus was an unctuous biblical bore.
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"The contract gives you a quarter of a million dollars, and it gives me half a million headaches," Theo is told by the head of Elysium, a man who grasps the problems posed by such a manuscript. The scrolls may be stolen goods. The Fifth Gospel is short. ("It's 30 pages of text, max, if it were printed in quite a roomy font with generous margins.")
How can Elysium package what is essentially just a pamphlet? "The obvious solution is that we pad it out with your account of how you found the scrolls, how you got them back from Iraq, some fascinating facts about the history and structure of the Aramaic language, what you had for breakfast on the morning you arrived back in Toronto, and so on and so on and so on," the publisher explains.
Out he goes onto the talk show circuit to explain some of Malchus' more awkward revelations, because the gist of the Fifth Gospel is that Jesus had very human frailties. And the scrupulousness of Theo's translation creates trouble. Even his use of the word groin ("I could've translated it as 'loin,' but I felt that would be unnecessarily archaic") raises eyebrows, but Malchus made regrettably graphic observations. And Malchus gave those observations an unflattering slant in a document that purports to date from about A.D. 40 and offer an eyewitness account of the Crucifixion. "Who among us would not flinch?" he blasphemously wonders about Jesus' reflexes.
These provocations turn "The Fifth Gospel" into "The Fire Gospel" once it creates a furor. Angry readers begin buying and burning copies of it. "A sale is a sale, right?" Theo decides.
Faber, still best known for his long, ravishing "The Crimson Petal and the White," this time manages to be most insightful when describing fatuous superficiality. Yes, Amazon.com review parodies are cheap shots, but he makes them priceless. Theo is horrified to learn that his book is being bought by readers of "The Da Vinci Code." He marvels at Amazon's own flat-footed product description. (Malchus' account is "as honest and vivid as when it was written in the 1st century A.D., at the dawn of the Western world's greatest faith.") He encounters spectacular displays of semiliteracy ("once he gets his ear cut off and sees the crucifixtion, thats basicly it.").
"The Fire Gospel" coasts cleverly and blithely through most of Theo's American book tour. Eventually it hits a pothole and can't get back on track. Once Faber trains his focus on crazy, trigger-happy American readers and then on the Muslim terrorists who decide that Theo is Satan's helpmate ("He wasn't used to being called 'minion of Satan,' except in Amazon reviews"), this novella turns from satire to slapstick and never regains its rigor. Not even Faber's final twist about a book that really makes a difference (hint: it's not Theo's) can match this book's early glee about the discovery of a dubious biblical sensation.