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Testament

by Nino Ricci

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes upon two brothers, Andrew and Peter, casting a net into the sea. Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” and the brothers abandon their trade and become two of his most beloved disciples. Peter and Andrew were right to take stock and shed their former selves, for they saw in Jesus the pure, simple power of authenticity, which is also the allure of Testament, Nino Ricci’s latest novel.

Testament looks at Jesus Christ from four viewpoints, switching from Judas Iscariot (here called Yihuda of Qiryat) to the Marys (Miryam of Migdal and Miryam, the mother of Jesus), and finally to Simon of Gergesa. It is no pamphlet pushing Scripture Lite, as Ricci makes clear in an author’s note: “While it does take its inspiration from the figure who has come down to us as Jesus Christ, it does not purport to be an accurate historical representation of that figure.”

The four tellings of the Christ story overlap. Versions of the novel’s core events – from the teenage Mary’s rape by a Roman legate to the days and years after Golgotha – are coloured by the education and race and sex of each narrator. The later sections pick apart Yihuda’s conflicted skein of half-truths. The slippages, the moments viewed from irreconcilable perspectives, add up. By novel’s end, we sense the story’s whole cloth. The cloth is not just depicting the story. The cloth is the story. Testament, a refracted biography of Jesus, becomes too an examination of storytelling itself, for what is Jesus of Nazareth if not a teller of stories?

In Ricci’s Yeshua of Notzerah we also see echoes of another character from an earlier story. Ricci’s trilogy – Lives of the Saints (1990), In a Glass House (1993), and Where She Has Gone (1997) – is a kind of bildungsroman, following the growth and education of young Vittorio Innocente, a troubled Italian immigrant to Canada. The books are pitched to Vittorio’s shame and sins: his mother has a child by another man and is shunned; from childhood he is marked as different, special; he is schooled by strangers. This sense of a special fate makes him hesitant, unable to grasp his own life, so that at every moment he might turn to those around him with love and gladness or he might bury his feelings and remain apart.

These qualities – Vittorio’s hesitancy, his yearning, his aloofness, his unrootedness – are the qualities of Ricci’s Yeshua, too. Through the eyes of his acolytes and his estranged mother we watch Yeshua wander, drawn and repelled by his bastard secrets and by his Jewish destiny to suffer. But Yeshua is dual, at the same time man and god. He bobs above the book’s intricate politics, moving as he pleases. Those he finds see him either as a desert madman or as a window onto another, better world, a kingdom on Earth and elsewhere where the low are raised high and the mighty brought low. Ricci manages this through nuance, miracles suggested so as to be explained away – or not, as the reader chooses.

Jesus makes sense of paradox through his parables, since it’s only in stories that white can be both white and black. Ricci too draws attention to the nature of the storytelling, recasting the names in old-style pronunciations and conjuring up the smothering cadences of the Bible: “Now it happened at the time that…” and “As it fell out…” This is a good strategy for Ricci, who seems less than preoccupied with plot anyway, aiming instead for emotional nuance, an evocation of the soul’s misty moors. Each section has a relentless momentum, driven by the recurrent use of thens and sos and thuses. The sentences and paragraphs are the simple containers for the complexity of the retellings, the repetitions and foreshadowings.

Readers are active in the telling. Many of us know the parable of the loaves and the fishes, how the cock crowed three times, and the resurrection of Lazarus. Yet none of these are told straight on here. Ricci brings us to the brink of familiarity, but if the miracles are to occur, the aphorisms to shower down, they will happen in response in the readers’ minds. And this is his point: “However things get remembered,” Simon muses at novel’s end, “you can be certain it won’t be how they actually were, since one man will change a bit of this to suit his fancy, and one a bit of that, and another will spice it to make a better story of it. And by and by the truth of the thing will get clouded, and he’ll simply be a yarn you tell to your children. And something will be lost then because he was a man of wisdom, the more so when even someone like me, who when I met him didn’t know more than when the crops came up and how many sheep it took to buy a bride, had come to understand something of him in the end.”

From the good book Ricci has fashioned a great story.