BOOK BY JOÃO CERQUEIRA
LINE BY LION PUBLICATIONS, 2016
324 PP.; $14.89 (PAPERBACK) $2.99 (KINDLE)
JESUS AND MAGDALENE. The title intrigued me enough to give it a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.
João Cerqueira’s novel has elements of humor, theology, ecology, and ethics. It’s timing? Perfect. So much so that I did wonder whether Cerqueira was picking a fight or just poking fun at contemporary society. The story of Jesus and Magdalene is biblical, common knowledge for many. However, Cerqueira gives their narrative a fantasy-twist as he reincarnates this ancient couple on an alternate, present-day Earth and through their eyes, holds a mirror up to the modern world.
What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Cerqueira’s prologue contemplates this idea and spins it wickedly:
[H]e won’t have to be born from a virgin…in a world where pater-nity tests are commonplace.… [T]he three kings wouldn’t come, laden with gifts…[they] would be detained on suspicion of terrorism….Fasting for forty days and forty nights wouldn’t be repeated either…given how easy it is to call for a pizza.
What’s more, Jesus “wouldn’t consider that looking is a form of adultery,” nor would he weigh in on the Catholic Church. Instead, he might be condemned because “if [Jesus] had married Magdalene nobody would be obliged to be celibate and none of this would have happened.”
I laughed out loud as I read the first eight pages, but please don’t tell my grandmother. Cerqueira’s writing is witty and filled with sarcasm and humor. Lots of humor. It’s a black comedy of sorts that pokes fun at religion and science, but also has ethical undertones of a cautionary tale.
The story opens with an environmental group, Green are the Fields, whose keystone members are none other than the twelve apostles. They are leaderless, but guiding them are Judas and Mary Magdalene, who don’t always see eye to eye but more or less tolerate each other as frenemies often do when working together. I found it remarkable that Judas was made a heroic character who, along with Mary Magdalene and the rest of the Greenies, fights for Mother Earth.
The Greens, as they are also referred to in the story, are not an ordinary environmentalist group. They’re extremists wielding ecoterrorism as their choice of weaponry when people don’t agree with their green opinions—the dangers of GMO, in particular. They long to be respected by Greenpeace and there’s talk of other real-world activists. Here, Cerqueira does a nice job blending fantasy with reality.
Jesus enters the story an innocent, partially dragged into Magdalene’s agenda. As I read further, I understood that Jesus and Magdalene knew each other from a vague reference, but somehow the others don’t recognize him. It’s like they all forgot they had past lives. Jesus himself seems like he has amnesia, as an omniscient narrator compares him throughout the novel to his prior deeds from the New Testament of the Bible. Jesus is still the patient, loving man, but in the modern setting his passivity doesn’t work well for him nor does it satisfy Magdalene’s lust for action and justice. In this light, Jesus is not as discernible as his followers who, in this reality, he now follows.
Contrary to Jesus is Cerqueira’s Magdalene. She is fierce. She has shed her religious trappings in the modern world and believes like a zealot that “religion only serves to hinder scientific advances, to oppress women, and to divide men.” She also believes in the “noble cause” and fills her pride with the idea of giving without expecting profit. Did I mention she slaps Jesus in an argument over abortion? I like this Magdalene. She’s surprising.
It’s notable that Cerqueira fills his story with many modern-day references—from academia, popular culture, history, and economics, technology, theology, science, and social injustices (such as the exploitation of third-world workers by multinationals in the chocolate industry). The outer ring of the story is about GMOs and the reader is led through the inner rings of Cerqueira’s story to a central theme. Along the way, readers will continue to find many footnoted sources peppered throughout the novel as well as allegory and a few obvious clichés.
Among the book’s historical sources is the Athens Charter on page 210 that stopped me in an “oh, this is interesting” kind of way. Created in 1933 by well-known architects and urban planners of that era, the charter was designed with the central idea that all of society should have the fundamental right to happiness found in the home and in the access to the city’s beauty. This idea inspired the development of the fictional “New Europe” community created for the multi-ethnic population that lives on the outskirts of the novel’s bigger community of St. Martin and is another example of reality blending with fiction. What’s more, in the narration about New Europe there’s mention of the ancient Greek Athenian society and Thomas More’s Utopia. Ironically, in Cerqueira’s story this new community is broken. Indeed, I enjoyed all the abstract concepts the novel presents—with so many ideas, modern and ancient—and the thinking I did during my ascent to the main storyline. In fact, I had a moment of déjà vu. I felt like I was back in my undergraduate years, sitting in a philosophy or sociology class discussing hidden meanings along with deep thoughts related to society. In this light, I can see Cerqueira’s Jesus and Magdalene being a college book—listed alongside the likes of Sophie’s World and, of course, the classic Utopia.
João Cerqueira’s smart novel disrupts the contemporary narrative with its provocatively witty style and its ethical pushback, creating a unique space for itself in entertaining reading. Jesus and Magdalene won the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards and recently won the silver medal for Best Humor in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Awards.
This review was adapted from Shelley Carpenter’s original review published at the online literary journal Toasted Cheese on March 1, 2017, and is reprinted with permission.