Potent tale of two Christs is a zealot’s nightmare

Review of Philip Pullman’s controversial – and impressively engaging – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from latest edition of The Sunday Business Post

‘This is a story.” The back of Philip Pullman’s latest book features no blurbs from writers or flowery descriptions – just these four words in gold capitals.

Despite the disclaimer, not everyone is treating The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as fiction:

Pullman has already received cores of threatening letters from religious fundamentalists.

A highly successful children’s writer, Pullman is no stranger to the ire of the religious right – his bestselling Northern Lights trilogy depicted God as a senile old man and the books are among the most banned in contemporary American schools. From its first sentence, The Good Man presents a similarly iconoclastic interpretation of the gospel’s familiar narrative.

‘‘This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.” Yes, that’s Jesus and his brother Christ. All the other familiar New Testament characters are present – Joseph, Mary, Joachim and Anna, the priest Zacharias – but Pullman’s Bible story is unlikely to appear in many catechism curriculums.

In that fateful Bethlehem stable we find Mary giving birth to twin boys. Jesus, Pullman reveals in prose so simple it borders, at times, on the demotic, ‘‘was a strong and cheerful baby, but Christ was often ill’’. Christ grows up into an intelligent, studious and unpopular boy, while the youthful Jesus is unpredictable, disrespectful and rarely wants for friends.

Pullman keeps to the broad strokes of the gospel’s version of Jesus’s early life – we see him being baptised by John, spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness and eventually preaching the word of God. While Jesus grows into a radical, socially aware proselytiser, roaming Judea and attracting followers, Christ slips into the background, becoming his brother’s unofficial biographer at the behest of a ‘stranger’ who is later revealed to be an angel.

Initially, Christ reports Jesus’s words and deeds with a reasonable degree of faithfulness, adding the occasional lyrical flourish but maintaining factual accuracy.

As the popularity of Jesus grows, however, the brothers’ relationship starts to resemble less Marx and Engels and more Socrates and Plato – no longer content to chronicle Jesus’s life as it was, Christ starts to write it as it ‘‘should have been’’.

A good man he may have been, but Pullman’s Jesus is no miracle worker: variously we learn a steward at Cana was minded to release wine he was hoarding; the five loaves and two fishes merely convinced the crowd to share their food; and healed cripples were malingering beggars paid a small fee for their deceptive services.

The book’s central thesis – that the story of Jesus’s life was manipulated to meet the aims of his successors in the Church – is laid bare in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Here the gospel parable of transcendent faith is replaced by a haunting depict ion of a broken Jesus praying to God without answer: ‘‘You’re not there.

You’ve never heard me. I’d be better to talk to a tree, to talk to a dog, an owl, a little grasshopper. They’ll always be there.”

Christ is convinced by the malevolent angel to betray his brother to the Roman authorities and, later, to play body double for the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus. Pusillanimous as it is, this duplicity gives the apostles the necessary faith to dedicate themselves to their master’s message – without which, Pullman intimates, the story of Jesus would have long been forgotten.

Revisiting the Bible has become something of a literary trope, but The Good Man exhibits none of Dan Brown’s tricksy – and ultimately fatuous – chicanery.

Canongate’s Myths series, of which this novel is the latest offering, has already seen Jesus urinating on the head of an apostle in novelist Michael Faber’s retelling of the myth of Prometheus, but Pullman’s offering is neither crude nor intentionally shocking. Instead he subtly presents the fantastic elements of the New Testament as just that, fantasy, stories carefully collected and sculpted, and maintained by the Church.

There are echoes of the inquisition parable from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, both in The Good Man’s treatment of the Church and its striking denouement. Where Dostoevsky’s Jesus returns to earth in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition and is put to death by a hierarchy fearful that his presence would interfere with their mission, Pullman’s becomes a pawn; his life neutered and stripped of its incendiary political meaning by an omnipotent Church.

Pullman is an avowed atheist, but this powerful, engaging work is no facile critique of organised religion.

Skilfully crafted and expertly paced, the Good Man is a remarkable exposition of how the stories we live our lives by may be created and propagated.

Fundamentalists might not appreciate its relativism but, in the current climate, ‘‘this is a story’’ is a poignant Easter mantra.

Last spin of the wheel for Belfast

News feature on the imminent closure of Belfast’s big Wheel from the latest edition of The Sunday Business Post

It may not be as old as Samson and Goliath, Harland and Wolff’s famous yellow cranes, yet in just two and a half years, the Belfast Wheel has become an iconic feature of the city’s skyline.

However, the 60-metre tall ferris wheel, located beside City Hall, will not be a Belfast landmark for much longer – the attraction is due to close after its final spin next Sunday.

Since opening in October 2007, the wheel has become one of Belfast’s most popular tourist attractions, and there are concerns that its closure will have a negative impact on visitor numbers.

‘‘We are on record as saying that the wheel should stay, as it is a great city centre attraction and provides a steady footfall for retailers,” said Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retailers Association.

The circumstances surrounding the wheel’s closure remain unclear. The operating company, Great City Attractions, initially lodged an application to keep it open until the summer of 2011. The North’s planning authorities had not processed that request when, two weeks ago, Great City Attractions announced that the wheel would close on April 11.

‘‘We knew it wasn’t going to be here forever, but it seems very premature to remove it with just a couple of weeks’ notice,” Roberts said. ‘‘The owners haven’t released a statement, so we don’t know the motivation for removing the wheel.”

Great City Attractions declined to comment when cont a c ted by The Sunday Business Post, but concerns about the wheel’s continuing economic viability appear the most likely factor behind the decision.

The company, which is also known as World Tourist Attractions, operates ferris wheels in numerous locations, including Copenhagen, Liverpool and Brisbane. While the Belfast Wheel proved extremely popular on opening, in recent months it has been rare to see more than a handful of its 42 gondolas occupied at any one time.

For many people, the wheel has been a symbol of Belfast’s recent transformation. Such a structure would have been impossible during the Troubles, when the city centre was a regular target for terrorist bombs.

Since opening, the wheel has been the site of several marriage proposals and hosted speed-dating events. It even attracted a protester who had to be removed from the top by firefighters.

Resistance to the wheel’s closure has been strong. Several Facebook groups opposing the decision have been launched in recent weeks, and over three-quarters of votes in an online poll on the UTV website were in favour of it remaining at City Hall.

However, not everyone will be sad to see the attraction go. ‘‘We are delighted to see it finally close,” said Susie Miller of the Belfast Titanic Society, a heritage group that has been vocal in its opposition to the wheel. ‘‘Many people don’t realise that the Titanic memorial is right underneath it. We feel it is incredibly insulting to the people whose names are on the memorial, the 22 Belfast men who lost their lives.”

Miller’s own grandfather died in the disaster.

There is speculation that Great City Attractions may move the attraction to Derry or to a site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter development. But whatever the Belfast Wheel’s next move, a major change in the city’s skyline is definitely on the horizon.

Easter in Alicante

Feature on the spectacular Easter celebrations in the Costa Blanca from todays Irish Times.

IT’S ALMOST midnight, but the street lights are off in El Barrio. Thousands of people line the narrow backstreets of this part of Alicante, creating a din of excited chatter in the warm evening air. The scent of fresh flowers and burning incense hangs heavy while, in the distance, bugles sound and drums beat.

Pressed hard against an aged stone wall by the weight of the crowd, I can see only the empty street immediately in front of me. Then, from around the corner, a troop of men in cloaks, like Klansmen but with blue instead of white capriotes , or pointed hoods, emerge, followed by a parade of ostentatious floats so large they take 16 men to carry.

First there is El Cristo Gitano (the Gipsy Christ), then El Descendimiento (the Descent) and, finally, more penitents in pointed hats. The whole procession lasts an hour and a half. It’s only Holy (or Spy) Wednesday, but already Alicante’s traditional Easter festivities are well under way.

If merely passing through the arrivals hall qualifies as a visit, then Alicante is one of Ireland’s favourite destinations. Each year tens of thousands of us, sombreros, shorts and factor 15 in tow, thread through the city’s international airport. Most head straight for the apartment blocks and sandy beaches of Benidorm, but less than 20km from the terminal building lies a vibrant city teeming with culture, history and, at Easter, some serious celebrations.

Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, processions ranging from the flamboyantly colourful to the darkly solemn are a daily occurrence in the Costa Blanca’s capital, but it is Holy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday that mark the pinnacle of the Holy Week calendar.

On Wednesday La Procesión de la Santa Cruz (the Procession of the Holy Cross) begins in the working-class district of the same name that hugs the lower slopes of Mount Benacantil, the imposing mountain that dominates the city skyline and atop which sits the dramatic Castillo de Santa Bárbara.

From Santa Cruz colourful floats and banners, accompanied by sombre brass bands and hundreds of priests and cloaked penitents, move slowly through the 20,000-strong crowd sandwiched into the Barrio’s streets.

If the procession is reasonably reserved, the festivities that follow are anything but. No sooner have the floats and on-lookers dispersed, around midnight, than the Barrio’s legendary nightlife kicks into gear.

Calle Labradores, the old town’s main thoroughfare, is home to myriad bars offering €2 cocktails and trashy Euro-pop, but venture a little farther along the quaint stone streets and you’ll quickly stumble on something a little more civilised. Spanish clubs are renowned for starting late and finishing even later, and Alicante is no exception: by 4am the entire neighbourhood, bulked out by the city’s sizeable student population, is thronged, mostly with under-25s. A friendly barman assures me that the discos keep going until the sun comes up. With one eye on Thursday’s parade I hit the road long before last orders.

The next day, the city beach at Playa Postiguet is the perfect place to relax in the April sun before heading on to Piripi (Avenida Oscar Esplá 30, 00-34-965- 227940, noumanolin.com), one of Alicante’s top tapas bars, for a Maundy Thursday dinner: the arroz con sepionet con alcachofas (baby squid and artichokes) is a local delicacy.

Then it’s out on to the street again for the imposing Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence), a candlelit – and largely quiet, save the odd rap of a kettledrum – prelude to the Crucifixion. This short parade features two of Alicante’s most iconic Holy Week figures: Nicolás de Bussi’s 17th-century carving of Jesus, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte , and the 18th- century Virgen de las Angustias by Francisco Salzillo.

Given its long (and often bloody) religious history, Alicante is a fitting spot for such dramatic Easter celebrations. The Moors arrived in the eighth century and built the present-day settlement. Their influence is still woven through the city’s fabric, from the truncated street patterns of the Barrio through to the town’s name: legend has it that the Moorish king’s daughter, Cantella, threw herself into the sea when her beloved, Ali, failed to gain her father’s permission to marry. Ali did the same, and the city was renamed in honour of the two doomed lovers.

Now the city is overwhelmingly Catholic. As if to emphasise the point, the Easter Sunday procession of the Virgen de la Alegría takes place among the swaying palm trees on the majestic waterfront esplanade. Alicante’s Holy Week festivities are finally over – and I still haven’t bumped into anyone from the flight.