By Nino Ricci
The first thing you notice when you pick up Testament, the new novel about the life of Jesus by Nino Ricci, is the dustjacket. The pictures on the dustjacket are details taken from Caravaggio’s painting “The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Several hours later, the last thing you come to is a page of Acknowledgments, in which Ricci explains that his novel “does not purport to be an accurate representation” of “the figure who has come down to us as Jesus Christ,” though he has made “every effort to work within the bounds of historical plausibility.”
In other words, the dustjacket contains a bit of false advertising. Ricci’s historically plausible Jesus is alien to Caravaggio’s dramatic portrait. The Jesus in Testament is no miracle worker. The bastard son of Mary and a Roman legate passing through Jerusalem, he is basically an intelligent, introverted young man with a gift for healing. He does not walk on water or calm storms. He does not divide loaves and fishes to feed multitudes. The only person to witness his transfiguration is a loony zealot who is afraid of ghosts. The Gadarene demoniac is just in need of a good meal. Even Lazarus, while seeming dead to one narrator, has hardly been lying four days in the tomb. He has only been knocked unconscious. As for Jesus’ own resurrection . . . well, you get the picture.
Truly, to re-adjust the centurion, this was not the Son of God.
And in his defence, Ricci’s Jesus never says he is. Nor does he even use the more ambiguous title of Son of Man. He is not a revolutionary or radical, like his mentor John the Baptist, but a kinder, gentler, more Socratic Jesus. There is no Sermon on the Mount or tirade against money-changers in the Temple. To his followers he is a reluctant leader, to say the least. Indeed, he is a figure so bland and innocuous – a Jesus with a Toronto address, as it were – the novel has trouble explaining why he is crucified. Hauled before the authorities he can only say “There’s been a mistake.” In the brief interrogation that follows, Pilate, in a rage, orders his execution despite an invitation to mercy from a Jewish examiner – an inversion of the Gospels that seems less historically plausible than politically correct.
Ricci is one of Canada’s best pure writers, and Testament is no small achievement in any technical regard. The novel is divided into four sections, each with a different narrator with a different perspective on the life of Christ: Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, and a farmer named Simon. The sections overlap and move forward as a unit in an understated yet impressive handling of structure. While the story of the Gospels is reduced, the language of the New Testament still has a presence in a number of quiet allusions. The writing has clarity and elegance throughout, and as a storyteller Ricci is effective and assured.
It’s typical of stories featuring multiple perspectives on the same events to have an absent centre, which is also what happens here. Jesus is not a compelling figure in himself, but rather a conduit, the door or Way. Of all the images attached to him, the most consistently invoked is the door. Judas (who, by the way, is no traitor) imagines him “beckoning before me as towards a doorway he would have me pass through, from darkness to light.” Mary Magdalene likens knowing him to a door suddenly opening to a new country. His mother finds that through him “some doorway had been shown to me that I would not otherwise have come to.” He brings Simon to a vision of a world “that you saw for an instant through a gateway or door.”
Though it takes its share of liberties, there is much of Testament that is in keeping with the spirit of the Gospels. It is a backward age that looks for a sign; the Kingdom of God is within. In a number of subtle, sometimes indirect ways, Ricci’s book reminds us of these less dramatic spiritual truths.
Review first published June 8, 2002.