Lars Petter Sveen is a rising young literary star in Norway, where this book and two earlier ones have won national prizes. “Children of God’ is an original and unsettling text, a ruthless dismantling of the Bible.
Old and New Testaments overlap as Jesus and his disciples wander around Nazareth, Jerusalem and the deserts surrounding the Sea of Galilee. Disconcertingly, present as well are Jacob, Sarah, Ruth, Saul and not just one, but seven, young King Davids. In these stories, with overlapping characters, they roam around, often to no clear purpose, alongside imaginary biblical characters: soldiers, prostitutes, children.
The stories undermine biblical composition in stylistic ways, too. The poetic cadences lack confidence. A story seems to build and coalesce only to dissolve into stammering uncertainty.
“Little Children” describes the emotions of the Roman soldiers sent to kill the firstborn infant sons of the Jews. What bothers them about their mission is less the gratuitous acts of murder than their leaders’ insult to their status as heroic fighters.
In later stories, the followers of Jesus believe in him as a Lord, but less than fervently. The light of their faith tends to peter out. There is surreptitious competition, even rifts and fractures, among the disciples, yet “Jesus was sitting there, only a few yards from us, but he wasn’t doing anything.”
Jesus is seen preaching, but mostly he wanders around ineffectually. He blesses Jacob and cures him of his stammer, apparently a mark of evil, but at the end of “The First-Born,” the stutter returns. In “The Great Fire,” a cynical old man says the stories about Jesus “begin suddenly, they never end, they just keep on going. … It’s impossible to see any pattern.”
There is a tour-de-force story about Sarah in the grave, “I Smell of the Earth,” that brilliantly describes a horribly physical life after death.
In each story there appears a strange, ugly old man who interrupts the plot to issue this repeated warning. “Come to me and listen. I’m blind, and yet I see many things. I’m what stays in the shadows while the light falls elsewhere. Don’t come with your prayers, not here. You pray for good, but good and evil are nothing to pray about. You should pray for a story to belong to, one you can believe in, one you can doubt.”
That’s deflating to the point of nihilism, the story gesturing at profound wisdom only to deliver a contradiction.
Sveen teases out every ambiguity and paradox in the biblical parables. The characters stumble into and out of enlightenment. This is the Bible as narrated not exactly by a purely evil Satan, but a skeptical, unsure-of-himself anti-Christ.
“What’s light without darkness? What’s the morning sun without the black carpet of night?” These stories never get close to redemption, or even hope. They are coldblooded assessments of our Jewish and Christian forebears.
Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis and past winner of the National Book Critics Circle Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing.
Children of God
By: Lars Petter Sveen, translated from the Norwegian by Guy Puzey.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 240 pages, $16.