Much has been made of the life of Jesus in fiction and in film. In the stunning, critically acclaimed novel Testament, Nino Ricci accomplishes something of an entirely new order: a portrait of Jesus that is historically grounded, philosophically rich, and emotionally moving and that speaks eloquently to the place and power of stories in our lives.
Set in a remote corner of the Roman Empire during a period of political unrest and spiritual uncertainty, Testament is a timeless story of how the holy man we know as Jesus alters forever the course of human history.
We come to know Jesus through the eyes of four dissimilar people, whose accounts cover overlapping portions of his life. The first is Judas (Yehuda), a committed political fighter who is invigorated by his discussions with Jesus about a sovereign nation for the Jews a place Jesus imagines as a philosophical rather than a physical kingdom. Second is Mary Magdalene (Miryam of Migdal), through whom we learn of Jesus' controversial teachings as the two travel through Galilee and Jesus encourages the masses to question the teachings of the powerful few. Through his mother, Mary (Miryam), we learn of his all-too-human vulnerability, the rigor of his conviction, and his unfailing compassion. Finally, it is through Simon of Gergesa, a Syrian shepherd, that we witness the last days of the Jewish preacher as he journeys to Jerusalem.
As the novel progresses, we begin to see how the story of Jesus, filtered by different eyes and desires and subject to countless retellings, will be transformed into myth. The result is a captivating, provocative, and moving account that will redefine the way we look at the possibilities of history and parable.
"Illuminates Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human with foibles and idiosyncrasies . . . making the familiar account blossom anew and the story of Jesus tangible. [A] wonderfully vibrant narrative." Los Angeles Times
"Ricci's command of his historical material is first-rate . . . a genuine tour-de-force." Washington Post
"Stunning . . . an absolutely beautiful, rigorously intelligent, fiercely thoughtful fictional biography." Booklist, starred review
A BOOKLIST TOP TEN HISTORICAL NOVEL OF 2003
NOMINATED FOR THE COMMONWEALTH WRITERS PRIZE
Nino Ricci is the author of several internationally renowned works of fiction. His debut novel, The Book of Saints, won the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the F. G. Bressani Prize. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as "an extraordinary story brooding and ironic, suffused with yearning, tender and lucid and gritty . . . [Ricci has] perfect pitch and brilliant descriptive powers." Ricci followed it with In a Glass House and Where She Has Gone, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize. Testament was selected by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Historical Novels of the Year and was awarded the Trillium Prize. Ricci lives in Toronto.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Testament for every reader.
1. Nino Ricci is often praised for his ability to "recreate a world entire and make us believe in it" (the Globe and Mail on Lives of the Saints). What challenges do you think he faced in this regard when writing Testament?
2. Ricci creates plausible reconstructions of how the miracle stories might have occurred without divine intervention. He explains, for example, why Jesus (Yeshua) has a gift for healing. According to Testament, how and why might these stories about a charismatic teacher have been transformed into myths of miracles by a divine healer?
3. Ricci has said he feels it only increases our sense of wonder if we think of Jesus as human rather than divine, since ascribing him divinity too easily explains away his tremendous impact on human history. "If he is a god, then that immediately puts him beyond us. But if he was just a man, then he might be someone we can actually learn from and follow in the footsteps of." What do you think Ricci would like us to take away from his portrait of Jesus?
4. The figure of Judas has been a symbol of betrayal since the dawn of Christianity. How does Ricci, through the figure of Yihuda of Qiryat, reconfigure the issue of betrayal to make it more layered and ambiguous? Does Yihuda betray Yeshua? In what sense?
5. What is at the heart of the difference between Yihuda and Yeshua? Between Yihuda and the rest of the twelve? Between Yihuda and Miryam of Migdal?
6. Of the four narrators, Miryam of Migdal is the one who could most closely be described as a true follower of Yeshua. What is the basis of her faith in him? To what extent is her atttraction to him based on her being a woman?
7. The traditional Christian depiction of Mary Magdalene casts her in the role of a reformed prostitute, a characterization that has no basis, in fact, in the gospels. How does Ricci's depiction of Miryam go against the usual view of Mary Magdalene while drawing on the sexual implications that view usually calls up? Do we come away with the feeling that there is any sort of sexual relationship between Yeshua and Miryam?
8. Miryam, Yeshua's mother, is perhaps the most credible narrator in the novel, but also the one whose relationship with Yeshua is most fraught. How would you characterize her relationship with Yeshua? How does her protectiveness toward him end up producing the very results she has sought to avoid? What is her view of Yeshua's sense of calling and of his eventual ministry?
9. What importance does Yeshua's status as a bastard play in Testament? Can this depiction of Yeshua be reconciled in any way with a more traditional view of Jesus?
10. Simon of Gergesa is the one narrator with no biblical parallel; he is also a character who stands well outside the Jewish world of most of the rest of the novel. What significant differences are there in his view of Jesus from those of the other narrators? What is Simon looking for? Does he find it?
11. What is the effect of switching from the Hebrew names of the characters in the first three sections to the Greek ones in the fourth? What might have been the purpose of such a switch?
12. Many of the events in Testament have biblical parallels of one sort or another. Compare the scene where Yeshua's mother goes to fetch him home in the Miryam section to the versions in the gospels (Mark 3:20-35; also Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). How does Testament, while clearly using the gospels as its source, give the incident a very different resonance and significance?
13. Testament provides much more in the way of social and historical context than we find in the gospels' accounts of Jesus. In what ways does this context affect our understanding of Jesus? How important is it to know, for instance, that Hellenic towns were a readily accessible part of Jesus' world? That uprisings and political intrigues against the Romans were commonplace? That Galilee was a place where many cultures and beliefs coexisted?
14. Testament's portrait of Pontius Pilate as a cruel tyrant is more in line with the existing historical record than the traditional Christian depiction of him as an innocent. How might Testament's portrayal change our understanding of Jesus' crucifixion?
15. Kephas, based on Simon Peter, is Yeshua's staunchest supporter through much of the novel, though he goes through a period of profound doubt at the end. What is the source of his support? Of his doubt? What might have led him, in the end, to suppress the truth about Yeshua's origins?
16. In what ways is Yeshua part of the Jewish world in Testament? In what ways does he stand outside it?
17. Does Ricci succeed in creating a credible Jesus? Do the different portraits of the four narrators come together into some sort of unified whole?
A Conversation with Nino Ricci
Q) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
A) The original seed of inspiration for Testament probably goes back to the first book I ever owned, a picture Bible called The Guiding Light, which was presented to newborns in my hometown by our hospital. The light-bathed Jesus depicted there became my first hero, its stories of sinners and miracles the backdrop to my imagination. As I grew older, that first blissful relationship I had with Christianity gave way to a somewhat thornier one that saw me pass from post-Vatican II Catholicism to born-again evangelism and finally to a last, desperate phase with Norman Vincent Peale. But though by early adulthood I could no longer have properly called myself a Christian, neither could I say I'd got free of Jesus, who seemed far too powerful a figure to rid oneself of by so simple a thing as a loss of faith.
Already, by my early 20s, I had conceived the idea of doing a fictional treatment of the life of Jesus, to reconcile my sense of the power of this figure with some of the more problematic aspects of the Christian tradition. It took me some two decades to finally get around to the project, the final outcome of which was the novel Testament.
Q) What were you exploring in this book?
A) My idea in Testament was to try to look at the figure of Jesus in purely human, and hence non-Christian, terms. In other words, if we supposed that some actual historical figure lay behind the myth of Jesus as it was handed down, what might he have been like, stripped of the interpolations and inventions of Christian tradition? What sort of person could have been responsible for the teachings that have come down to us, some of which were truly revolutionary for their time, and for the often contradictory figure that comes through in the gospels?
Q) Who is your favorite character in this book, and why?
A) I tend to have affection for most of my characters when I write. Even those whom I start out disliking or who are rather unsavory I usually end up redeeming in some way by the third or fourth draft of a book. In Testament, for instance, the character of Yihuda was harder and less pleasant in earlier drafts. But as I rewrote the book, I found he grew more interesting and more complex, and the relationship between him and the Jesus character known in the book mainly by his Hebrew name, Yeshua more nuanced.
The character in the book who seemed to come to me most easily was Miryam, Yeshua's mother. I had a clear vision of her from the outset and a clear sense of her voice, and her section was perhaps the one that required the least revision. Perhaps that was because of all the characters, she was the one who saw Yeshua's humanity in its fullest aspect, outside the aura of holiness and doctrine that his followers envisioned. I think it is also true, however, that while some characters require a great deal of work and fine-tuning before they truly come alive, others simply come to you in this way, as a gift, whole and fully formed.
Q) Is there any advice you would like to convey to readers of Testament?
A) Some readers have approached Testament uneasily because they feel they do not have much grounding in the biblical stories it draws from. But while some familiarity with the gospels of the New Testament would probably enrich a reading of Testament, my intention in writing the book was not to provide some chapter-by-chapter gloss on the gospels. My idea, rather, was to write a novel, a story that stood on its own, one that shed light, perhaps, on the biblical narratives but that did not rely on them in any detailed way for its strength.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Random House Canada for permission to reproduce this interview.