Saturday, 23 January 2010

Young God in the Building, Bout to Start A Religion - Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

It was my final year of primary school that I was first encouraged to question the Bible - in retrospect, a brave and mad thing for a teacher in a Church-in-Wales school to do. He provided a prosaic explanation for miracles such as feeding the five thousand or turning water into wine, and then letting us come up with similar explanations for how miracles may have been enacted. In retrospect it's probably the healthiest religious education lesson I ever had, teaching me to question religion's precepts.

Behold the Man comes from a similar perspective. On the surface it's highly blasphemous, putting an ordinary man in the stories where Jesus conventionally fits, and the depiction of Mary and Jesus seems deliberate provocation. And from that point of view it's similar to Monty Python's Life of Brian with the surface blasphemy being cover for deeper blasphemy, being a wider critique of organised religion and the myths that grow up around them, although the Pythons swapped Behold the Man's righteous anger for sharp jokes. Glogauer isn't particularly sympathetic as a chacracter, being antisocial and driving everyone away from him by combining a messianic complex with a tendency to self pity and lack of direction One of the 'Angry Young Men' contemporary with the book being written, but without anywhere to direct his anger. The combination of an unsympathetic lead, spare prose and an author's righteous anger means the book always feels an edgy and uncomfortable read, particularly when Glogauer realises he's fulfilling his historical role. The tropes of a time traveller finding himself playing out an alloted role have become well worn, this was written at a time when they were fresher, and such books weren't quite as plentiful. The reader might sniff where events are leading relatively early on, but it's only in the last third that Moorcock turns it into a tragedy. Being sparing with it means the story's not mawkishly exploitative as it could easily have been, and doesn't come across as simply trading on the central premise.

This will certainly offend churchgoing Christians, maybe even committed folk of other religions. Otherwise it's a sharply drawn looks at how myths can accrete almost simply by the power of belief, how what originally happened is almost irrelevant. Not an easy read, but extraordinary and thought provoking.

And yeah I know, with Moorcock I probably should have searched for a Hawkwind lyric for the title...

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