Spreading the Word – ‘The Tongues of Men or Angels’ by Jonathan Trigell

menorangelsJonathan Trigell’s Genus is one of my favourite dystopian novels. It’s a first class meditation on genetic modification and a lens on current-day attitudes towards those with lower social mobility. It is in every way a dystopian novel built in honour of George Orwell. It is also a prose masterclass. Not a single word is misplaced, you can almost feel the effort made to form each perfect sentence.

On the face of it, The Tongues of Men or Angels has nothing in common with Genus. Trigell’s latest offering looks backwards, two thousand years, to the time of the crucifixion. Though the two novels are very different, Tongues of Men does have one very important thing in common with Genus. The quality of the writer’s craft.

The Tongues of Men or Angels has a very definite style and tone. One that befits the weight of its subject matter and the history behind the story. Again, the words feel like they were wrestled onto the page; honed into obedience by a wordsmith at his forge. It does make for a slightly detached unemotional read. We feel like we are watching from on high. Perhaps this is due to the events depicted, some of the most important in world history.

I’m not sure what motivated Jonathan Trigell’s to retell this story. Perhaps he needed nothing more than the fact he is a storyteller. What better tale to re-examine, than the greatest story ever told. A story that has endured two millennia, has given much comfort and caused untold strife; has made and broken nations. A story that has inspired millions of people and outraged almost as many.

The structure of this novel is all over the place. Timeline and point of view jump about, though the journey of Yeshua towards his execution continues only forwards. Much of the novel follows Saul of Tarsus, later Paul the apostle. His life is laid out in full, through Paul directly recounting his story, and through flashback to his early years. Other pivotal moments in Judeo-Christian history also appear (such as the denial of Christ by Peter).

I imagine to glean the most from this book, you would probably need to be a biblical scholar. I expect being an atheist scholar would probably help too. Whilst Trigell remains entirely respectful to his source material, you don’t have to look hard to notice there is an absence of divinity in the novel. It’s not overt, but it’s there. I imagine a believer would find this hard to swallow, whilst finding it hard to find fault with what Trigell has done. He reinterprets many events and significant moments from biblical lore, giving them a more rational slant.

I’m an atheist, but I’m fascinated by the stories recounted in the Bible. They are after all simply another mythology. I am particularly intrigued by the evolution of those myths. Since finishing the book, I have read around the subject a little, and it seems Trigell has been exceptionally faithful to the source material and its current interpretations. What dispassionate history doesn’t tell us, of course, is motive. This is what Trigell adds. Jerusalem at that time was a melting point of ideas and religious argument. Given this context, Trigell builds up a picture of how, in the absence of divinity, the stories may have evolved.

This is a difficult novel to enjoy. It is rather dry in places and it’s staccato structure can be a distraction. It is, however, a humorous novel; one that is gently irreverent. I am sure I missed many of the novel’s subtleties, and it would definitely bear repeated readings, especially after further research into its subject matter. This is not a novel one sits down to read for pleasure; it’s a philosophical journey that requires concentration.  It’s a book that prompts you to ask questions about the stories that form the backbone of modern western society. Ask, why is the church like it is? It doesn’t give many answers, merely suggestions. Suggestions many will disagree with.

The Tongues of Men or Angels is a work of serious literary merit. It’s wonderfully crafted and forces us to ask questions about things we take for granted. I learned a lot from this book, though it is important to keep in mind it is as fictional as any other, better selling, accounts of the tale. This book prompts us to question the manner in which history and religion are reported. How it’s easy to work the divine into anything, if you look hard enough. This is the second Trigell book I’ve read, I wonder what he has in store for us next? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be well-crafted and deeply thought provoking.

Many Thanks to Jonathan and Corsair Books for sending me a copy of this book. 

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