Never had I seen a book made that way. Like a prehistoric creature found living at the bottom of the sea, it bore only the faintest resemblance to its modern cousins. The manuscript’s cover was made with a sheet of skin hanging off like a satchel flap, designed to wrap around the pages again and again, to protect them. A leather tail dangled from it, beltlike, looping around the book to cinch it closed.
I undid the straps as carefully as if I were arranging hairs on a baby’s head. Inside, the pages were gray and soft. Flowing letters were penned in long, smooth strokes with no rounded edges: Syriac. Beside them. inked right there on the page, was a Latin index written by some long-dead Vatican librarian.
Formerly Book VIII among the Nitrian Syriac collection.
And then, very clearly:
Gospel Harmony of Tatian (Diatessaron).
A shudder went through me. Here in my hands was the creature invented by one of the giants of early Christianity. The canonical life of Jesus of Nazareth in a single book. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fused together to form the super-gospel of the ancient Syrian church.
Ian Caldwell’s second novel, The Fifth Gospel is a Vatican thriller which took more than a decade to write. The story revolves around the Vatican hosting an exhibition in the hope of earning some revenue. It promises to be an exciting one since it is about one of the oldest relics in Christianity — the Turin Shroud. It also involves the possibility of exhibiting the Diatessaron, discovered in the library. But a week before the exhibition is to open, the curator, Ugo Nogara, is found dead on the grounds of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer palace. The body is discovered by his friend the Roman Catholic priest Simon Andreou, who is soon joined by his younger brother, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest. Thus begins the murder investigation, implicating Father Simon Andreou. He is to be tried by a Vatican court. Meanwhile Father Alex Andreou is determined to get to the truth. Unfortunately there are moments when not only does he expose himself, but also his five-year-old son Peter, to danger, but the little fellow is made of quite stern stuff. ( Father Alex Andreou being a Greek Catholic priest is allowed to marry unlike his brother who remains a celibate.)
The Fifth Gospel is a fascinating account of life within the Vatican, a murder mystery, duplicity of the Vatican, the complexity of theology, the fascination with relics, and of course, the importance of family — related by blood or the banding together of the priests to create a sense of family. It is a stunning book. The details of daily life at the Vatican and the intricate and rich backdrop to the plot are mesmerising to read about. The reading experience is enriched by the deft characterisation — many of them such as Simon, Peter, Alex, Uncle Lucio, his secretary Diego, and even minor characters such as Alex’s friend Swiss Guard Leo, Alex’s wife Mona and Alex’s childhood friend Gianni Nardi remain memorable. They exist with you even after the novel is finished.
The twelve years spent by Ian Caldwell in research and writing show in the details of the literary landscape and the court scenes all though the murder mystery plot is basic. Yet it does not make the story any less gripping. What makes it even more astounding is that Ian Caldwell has never visited the Vatican. As he says in the KLTA5 interview, he has a young family and it would have been impossible to leave them for long periods to do his research in Italy. He was required at home. So he did the next best thing. He interviewed, met, spoke and discussed with many priests, canonists, professors, seminary instructors, Church lawyers, and prominent Catholic scholars who answered all his questions in detail “but sometimes spoke openly about their experiences at the Vatican”. (p.430) It is an interesting coincidence that within a week of this novel being released, and its focus on the acrimony and hostility that Christian relics can create within the church, the New York Times publishes an article on 4 April 2015, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones”. It is about two ancient artifacts that have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate. At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/world/middleeast/findings-reignite-debate-on-claim-of-jesus-bones.html?_r=0 ) Timely perhaps, blurring the lines between the worlds of reality and fiction.
Despite having a convenient and a satisfactory conclusion it is a novel worth spending time with. The Fifth Gospel may be written in a similar vein to a Dan Brown mystery, but it is far superior.
Some links worth browsing through:
A Q&A With Ian Caldwell, Author of March’s #1 Indie Next List Pick By Sydney Jarrard on Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015 http://www.bookweb.org/news/qa-ian-caldwell-author-march%E2%80%99s-1-indie-next-list-pick
KTLA5: New Book Reveals Vatican Life POSTED 9:24 AM, MARCH 26, 2015, BY NANCY CRUZ http://ktla.com/2015/03/26/new-book-reveals-vatican-life/
Ian Caldwell at the House of SpeakEasy on March 9, 2015, at New York’s City Winery. https://vimeo.com/122093010
7 March 2015
Ian Caldwell The Fifth Gospel Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 450 £12.99