The Gospel of Corax by Paul Park

Before I begin to discuss this book, two disclosures:

1. I was a student of Paul Park’s at Clarion West 2006. Which I don’t believe skews my reaction, and is probably less significant than my second disclosure, which is that
2. I was force-fed Catholic dogma and doctrine from an early age, and extricating myself from the clutches of the Church was a hard battle for me.

With the background I suggest in point number 2, you might wonder why I was interested in reading a book like Park’s, and I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t met Paul and been impressed with his other writing, and known what a thoughtful and masterful writer he is, I would not have read The Gospel of Corax. I am not (now) quite so traumatized as to be unwilling to talk or read about religious things today: I read, of my own free will, Elaine Pagels’ work on the Gnostic Gospels and a text on the Gospel of Judas as well. But I have seen so much rotten verbiage purporting to tell the secret life of Jesus that I am, naturally, leery of such texts now.

Here’s the thing: Park’s book isn’t like those books; actually, in significant ways his book is the opposite of those books. Scripture, after all, resembles fanfic more than any other kind of writing out there, (as is wonderfully explained by one Greta Christina). But the fact is, authorized or unauthorized, a lot of fanfic is not masterfully written; that, and every generation rereads that fanfic by a different light — fireside, candle, oil lamp, light bulb, rave lightstick.

And in that light, the novel reads almost, in some ways, like an implicit critique of this morphing and elision so common to most people’s understanding of the Gospel narratives. Park breathes life into the places and times of this novel that I have not seen before — not in fictional depictions of the Gospel, yes, but also in supposedly nonfictional ones, like the ones used to present the Gospel narratives to me as a child. For me, those stories were remote, the stark figure-upon-a-blank-canvas feeling that I think is was Erich Auerbach described (in Mimesis) as fundamental to the Biblical narrative form (and which he contrasted with the Homeric mode of characterization and description). In my mind when I was being force-fed Catholic doctrine — I don’t think my experience is unique in this respect — Israel was not really a bewilderingly cosmopolitan crossroads between Europe and Asia; its colonial occupation I knew about, but did not grasp as significant in itself; the Rome of my imagination contained Jews and Romans, but no particularly unique people, certainly no slaves running from disaster, no Brahmins from the East. While I was told that this world was cruel and brutal, I had no real grasp of it, but for Park and his characters, the brutality is simply there: an infanticide here, a stoning there. Characters may not like it, but it is clear such brutality is not beyond imagining for most people in this world.

(This, I suspect, explains why so many people are able to take the Gospel narratives seriously in a literal sense: because the thing is written so thinly, because the characters are such stick figures that it is hard to question motivation, to raise the question of an untrustworthy narrator; the narratives preemptively repudiate such readings in their simplicity… for some, at least, and with ruthless efficiency.)

Of course, this story does not even focus on Israel; the place is mostly a pitstop for the narrator — who, similarly, is not Jesus but rather Corax — a runaway Roman slave of Indian heritage. Decentering the Gospel narratives is part of the novel’s modus operandi, after all: the book tells the story not of Jesus but of a runaway Roman slave who goes by many names, among them Corax; it takes place mainly in a time and place the Gospels tell us nothing about; it depicts a Jesus who does not at all resemble (for the majority of the book) the Jesus of the Gospels; and it operates along a very different set of assumptions.

Which is to say, if the Gospels are a set of texts designed to convince you that a man named Jesus was the incarnation of the Israelites’ deity, this book is designed to awaken you to a picture of Jesus as a man living in a world — a world vividly and painstakingly rendered, so that you find yourself haunted by things you have seen, by cruelties taken as insigificant, by problems and realities that may have never crossed your mind when coinsidering that particular man in that particular time and place.

The Gospel of Corax also takes care to to remind you, gently, of what is not unique in his story. That may be a final decentering, where this could function as a kind of Tillichian or Jeffersonian gospel, since the supernatural uniqueness of Jesus is gently sifted apart: as various characters note, Boddo (The Buddha) was also said to have been born from a virgin mother, and many of the familiar teachings of Jesus are first heard being said by others, including those Jesus learns from (such as one mendicant philosopher Philoxenos). Through much of the story, indeed, Jesus is a skeptic, and Corax — though he realizes how much the narratives of different religions converge and mix and meld — is an apologist for belief. It is a curious, and to a modern mind, surprising tendency on Corax’s part: he admits that the virgin birth narrative is common to a number of faiths, but concludes that this is often how it works with gods. When he thinks of the whale that swallowed Jonah, he immediately conflates it with the sea monster slain by Perseus. For a modern reader, it is difficult not to question the overlapping narratives: why the giant sea beasts? Why the narratives of virgin birth? Corax, being unlike us, is a suitable guide for us to this worls; and meanwhile, Jeshua is skeptical of these stories for the same reasons we are, and, it is suggested, he would be skeptical of the stories many modern Christians believe, which also — by his and Corax’s knowledge — were borrowed or adapted from other sources.

In Park’s version of the story, Jesus is not even at the center — the narrator, almost the whole way through except for a single short passage near the end, is an escaped slave named Corax, who happens to be an Indian and who happens to be in flight eastward after the suspicious death of his master —  and Israel is mainly a pit-stop along a road between Imperial Rome and Mount Kailash. One of the fascinating things about this is that we get glimpses of all kinds of societies at the time: Hellenes in extreme decline (living in a dying city along the silk road) and the brutal-yet-reasonable Huns who have ravaged Eurasia. Indeed, brutality is in no short supply, and debasement is common; women are essentially property (and rather poorly treated property) and the stoning of a woman is a sight that, however much it horrifies us, and puts off the narrator, is received by the masses who witness it with essentially no negative reaction.

One thing I found fascinating about Park’s handling of the Jesus narrative is how it departs from that of Nicholas Notovich, the Russian who popularized in the West the notion that Jesus had traveled to India during the missing years; Notovich has Jesus (Issa) study Buddhism, while Park has Jeshua find his source of his strength and his faith elsewhere… for he is no Great Man sui generis. (However, of note is the fact that Notovich ripped off Helena Blavatsky; like Park, Blavatsky has Jesus reach the foothills of the Himalayas before departing West for home.) Indeed, when we meet him, Jeshua is a mess: he is guilt-ridden, and helpless, and to put it mildly, he carries not the weight of the world on his back, but just the weight of his own grave mistakes and even a crime, of having fled a broken home, of the simple human tendency sometimes to be selfish and weak and lazy. Corax, too, can be coldly calculating, and selfish, and brutal — that is, suited to survive in the world in which he finds himself, getting by on deceptions, lies, and thefts — and yet kindness and compassion bubble up from within him in the most unexpected of situations, certainly often enough for him to be a sympathetic character.

Anyway, this book is not really a avatarasroman — or whatever the equivalent would be for bildungsroman about the incarnation of a deity coming into his or her own, growing up, or whatever you might want to call it — indeed, Park’s ending skates very close to the line, but in a way that I found quite satisfying somehow. The book seems, I suppose, to have worked hard enough to convince me that it was far from an attempt to convert me to faith, that I was willing to accept the little bit of supernatural-mythic material at the end, within the context of the story in general being mythic. (Despite all of this being a touchy point for me.) What I’m saying is, Park does the balancing act extremely effectively, and I was happy at how surprising my own reaction to the book ended up being.

I keep asking myself what kind of a novel this is, even though I am not sure the question is useful in the best of circumstances. Or, rather, the question isn’t what kind of a novel this is, but something closer to what this novel is saying to me, or perhaps — in that conflicted way we find a form of communication in fiction — what it is all supposed to mean.  Whether, for example, it might be the first apocryphal gospel of its kind: a gospel written for the atheists of the world, or for the Liberal Christians (the philosophical descendants of Tillich and Jefferson), or perhaps just a Gospel for the sensible people who don’t believe the supernatural bits in the Christian narrative, and yet find something in those narratives that keeps them from discarding them completely. It is, after all, just as much a work of fanfic as any other piece of writing about Jesus; but I have a sense that what it says is unlike any other such work I’ve seen before.

Would that those who have eyes would see this book, and that those who have ears would hear of it.

When I read the sister-book to this novel — Park’s Three Marys, which I hope to get to sometime this year — I will post a link to that review here, and vice-versa.

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