Swearing on the Bible, Nino Ricci’s Testament

It was the ending, the final pages of Nino Ricci’s Testament (Doubleday, 2002; $25.00) that gripped me most, even though I knew the ending before cracking the book’s spine. Testament is Ricci’s fictional account of the life of Jesus as seen from the perspective of four people who knew him: Yihuda of Qiryat (Judas), Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalen), Miryam, his mother Mary, and Simon of Gergesa, the shepherd who recounts the actual crucifixion.

As in his previous works, Ricci’s exquisite prose draws the reader into the events of the story he is telling. He is, as always, precise and acute with language. Reading the final pages of Testament was like witnessing a holy day procession taken to the extreme. One cannot help but flinch reading: “… and then his arms were stretched out along the cross beam with a soldier holding each and the spikes were nailed in at the wrists. The first blow was the one that got a scream but it was also the easiest, since it was only flesh to pass through. Then there were just the grunts of swallowed pain and the thump of the nails sinking into the wood.”

Ricci has divided his version of the story into four “books” recalling the four Gospels. Stylistically, he weaves together the events of the story from four points of view so that we are always left wondering and questioning what is true and factual on the one hand, and what has been embellished, exaggerated, misinterpreted or misunderstood. Each of the four storytellers, for instance, talks about the many “miracles” attributed to Jesus, such as raising Lazarus from the dead. But as we look at the story from the various points of view, we begin to understand that appearances are not always what they seem, and stories are usually and naturally transformed by the telling and the teller. (The recounting of the Lazarus story is reminiscent of Ricci’s treatment of an apparent death in his novel In A Glass House. In that case, it was Rita’s dog who was wrongly presumed dead.) This technique makes the reader question and doubt every story ever heard, not just the Bible stories retold here. The contradiction of the teachings of Christianity is one of the ironies the reader must deal with. By analogy, we are being asked to examine the status quo, perhaps as Jesus himself did.

This novel will challenge the establishment, perhaps in ways Jesus did in his day. Here was a man who dared question tradition, who accepted women for who they were, and who saw beyond the grotesquely diseased and disfigured bodies of the lepers. For the authorities of the day, he did everything he wasn’t supposed to do. Ricci seems to have done the same, and will no doubt be castigated by some for invoking the reader to examine events and accounts critically.

There are recurring themes in Testament which some readers will find comforting; others will find them sacrilegious or disturbing. In Ricci’s version, the unique nature of the central character is not attributable to his being the Son of God; he is simply an extraordinary person with unexplainable powers.

Another recurring theme in Testament is marginality. Ricci’s character is more marginalized than the “conventional” Jesus in that he is the bastard son of Mary. According to this story, Mary was violated by a Roman after Mary’s father unwittingly put her in harm’s way. Marginality, therefore, is critical to this Jesus, not only because he takes up the cause of all those considered outcasts such as the sick and the poor, but also because of his own condition. This Jesus is both human and humane, and perhaps this was Ricci’s point in making him a bastard.

Slightly more in accordance with convention is Ricci’s presentation of his Jesus as a door to a state of unparalleled justice and peace where people are judged by their internal qualities and not by the particular circumstances of their external appearance or position. Time and again, we read of this man who seems to be beckoning people to enter this new world. Judas sums up his story by saying: “But there was in Yeshua that quality that made one feel there was something, still some bit of hope, some secret he might reveal that would help make the world over. Tell me your secret, I had wanted to say to him, tell me, make me new. And even now, though I had left him, I often saw him beckoning before me as towards a doorway he would have had me pass through, from darkness to light.”

Mary, his mother, too, describes it this way after meeting Miryam of Migdal as they both wait for news of Jesus who has been arrested: “… when she spoke of my son the wonder I heard in her voice was not so different from what I myself had felt, that sense of a doorway Yeshua stood before, to some new understanding. Except that she had passed through it, and saw things in a different light, and who was I to say that the miracle she had witnessed had not occurred, for those who have eyes to see it.” This, perhaps, is what Ricci is asking us to do.

Testament is explosive in every sense. The shattering of the conventional story will be controversial, but Ricci would be well aware of that. Testament, however, must be judged as a work of fiction and Ricci, the novelist, has every right to spin his story his way. He is not swearing on a stack of testaments, that this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He is just telling the story his way.

Marisa De Franceschi’s most recent collection of short stories is titled Family Matters (Guernica, 2001). She makes her home in Windsor, Ontario.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 1.

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