02 Apr / Thirst by Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson [in Shelf Awareness]
To portray Jesus Christ in fiction is not new – some would agree he was always a novel creation. From Nikos Kazantzakis’s classic The Last Temptation of Christ to the ongoing bestselling manga series Saint Young Men, Jesus moves copies. Prolific writer Amélie Nothomb (Tokyo Fiancée; Pétronille), who’s published a book annually since her 1992 debut, chooses Jesus as her 2019 protagonist in Thirst, her sixth title translated by Alison Anderson. At just 96 pages, Thirst is an easy single-sitting book, but its sly irreverence encourages repeat readings.
Nothomb sticks vaguely to the known script: Pontius Pilate sentences Jesus, he bears his cross, he’s crucified with two thieves, he dies, he rises. But here, Nothomb grants Jesus first-person intimacy as “the most incarnate of human beings.” Diverging dramatically from the recognizable, Jesus reveals his deepest thoughts with humor, fear, misgiving, but mostly aching honesty. He also proves himself a Proust fan.
Jesus’s story begins with a trial during which 37 recipients of his miracles air endless grudges: the water-to-wine Cana newlyweds were humiliated because Jesus waited too long to transform the good stuff; the formerly possessed Capernaum man contended exorcism induced boredom; Lazarus griped about his lingering corpse odor. Condemned to die, fear overwhelms Jesus: “I too am afraid of suffering.” During his imprisoned final night – even as the Gospels insist “this night I am writing from does not exist” – Jesus asserts new truths: he misses Joseph; Mary is a “far better person” than he; he loves Mary Magdalene (he called her Madeleine because he didn’t like double names and “it’s never a good idea to confuse your sweetheart with your mother”). He dares to dream of a future in which he lives.
Jesus refuses water so he might arm himself with thirst as preparation for the tortures ahead, because thirst “can become so great that all other suffering will be deadened.” As he struggles the next day to carry his cross to his final destination, he repeatedly refutes the accounting in the Gospels – “The evangelists were nowhere near me when this happened… they didn’t know me.” Naming – and discarding – one misinterpretation after another throughout the narrative, the singular phrase Jesus ultimately claims is “I thirst.” Thirst will be the affecting leitmotif for endurance, relief, satisfaction … and even God.
Nothomb, a baroness who has rewritten her own provenance story (she alleges Japanese birth despite Belgian records), seems rather practiced in embellishing history. With Thirst, she entices lucky readers with a dissenting, potentially heretical, refreshingly fascinating interpretation of an all-too-familiar life.
Shelf Talker: A refreshing and irreverent glimpse at Jesus’s most unguarded human thoughts, from his condemnation by crucifixion to his everlasting resurrection.
Published: 2019 (France), 2021 (United States)