As a kid I totally adored the kung-fu magic that was ‘Monkey!’ My brother and I would sit right in front of the telly, wide-eyed and grinning as the funny furry man and his friends beat the crap out of monsters, took the mickey out of each other and helped protect the wise and strangely beautiful young priest called Tripitaka on his/her endless journey to Enlightenment.
At the SFX Weekender event 2012, I decided to dress up as Monkey for the Maskerade Ball and the rock-star reception that the costume got me clearly showed that I wasn’t alone in my joy-filled reminiscence. One of the people who came up to me was a chap called Lavie Tidhar who, it turned out, had recently published a novella ‘starring’ Monkey. And… Jesus. Well, I was far too drunk to have a conversation with him about it at the time but I decided to track it down later out of curiosity and a (deeply misplaced) sense of vanity.
In the framework of world religions, Jesus is a figure of great spiritual significance. Apart from his own specific set of followers, the Muslims see him as a Prophet, whilst the Bhuddists consider him one of the many reincarnations of Bhudda. He is a touchstone, a meeting point of faith. Seen in this context, it is a brilliant yet simple leap to mix up mythologies and bring the Monkey king in to protect Jesus, in much the same way that he protected Tripitaka. After all, if Tripitaka was a reincarnation of Bhudda then Jesus is Tripitaka in essence. For me, it was a pitch made in heaven – what if the Three Wise Men that came from the East were actually Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy? The possibilities for comedy (both satirical and slapstick) allied with an imaginative basis for a secret history plot were just too good to resist.
Lavie Tidhar has form, having previously published his Bookman series though Angry Robot. I haven’t read these myself (yet), but I hear great things about them from friends and colleagues that have. Jesus and the Eightfold Path (clocking in at a slender 72 pages) comes to us from a different stable – Immersion Press. They describe themselves as ‘a small publisher specialising in limited-edition, single-author collections and short novels from both rising stars and established authors across the field of speculative fiction.’ Novellas can be pretty hard to place in a market that is perceived to be dependent on fat trilogies, and even well-established writers seem to have to wait forever before they are deemed popular enough to get their short pieces anthologised. Immersion Press gives their authors another route, albeit by invitation only.
The book itself is a lovely little hardback with good quality paper, helping to justify the hefty price tag. At ten pounds a pop, I get the impression that the Immersion catalogue caters to a relatively niche base of book collectors and devoted fans. The story is structured in four sections, taking in the life of Jesus from birth to death and (possible) resurrection. The style is very personable and the writing is tight. Tidhar does a phenomenal job of setting you right there in time and place. Monkey and co aside, the characters all feel like real people, and you get a sense of peeking behind the curtain of history to see the truth. The relationship between Miriam (Mary) and Joseph is particularly touching and ‘true,’ as are the political motivations and actions of King Hordos (Herod) and the Roman Jew, Josephus Flavius (our viewpoint character.) The scenes chosen are all familiar events, but they don’t stick zealously to the New Testament interpretation.
Of course, what you really want to know about is Monkey. Snap! Well, I’ve read a translation of the ‘Journey To The West’ tales and also watched the tv series again recently, and I have to tell you that Lavie Tidhar’s done a bang up job. The voices and personalities of Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy are absolutely spot on. Every time they bicker or get into a fight, or coin an unexpected nugget of wisdom, a grin plastered itself across my face. Monkey is perhaps a little wiser and calmer, but then he has lived a little longer and moved on a few steps on his own path to Enlightenment since the days of Tripitaka. The tone of the trio is immaculate and I could happily have read a full length novel with them travelling around with Jesus, bringing peace and justice to the world in their own inimitable way.
The difficulty I have with the book is that the older Jesus gets, the more sidelined his protectors become, until they are little more than passive observers – at one point literally becoming statues. It is spectacular to watch Jesus kicking arse at the temple (oh, yeah, they’ve been teaching him kung-fu since childhood) but it’s not quite what I signed up for. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a kung-fu Jesus really tickles my funny bone, and it also helps to drive home the serious point that Jesus was as much a rebel and a trouble maker in his own time as a preacher and a teacher of peace. He was no Ghandi when it came to challenging the incumbent regime. In terms of story-telling though, the more you harden Jesus up in these terms, the more you render Monkey and his cohorts irrelevant. Now, if the secret history of the older Jesus had involved our friends taking on the role of three of his disciples (getting properly involved in the biblical events and driving some of the plot) then we might really have something here. Unfortunately, I got the impression that as he went on, Tidhar allowed his narrative to get hobbled by his respect for the historical man. As a reader, I felt more than a little let down by his failure to forge the stories together effectively.
I did question Lavie about it afterwards, to try to get a sense of what he was looking to achieve with the piece. Without wanting to skew my review (feeling that every reader should take from a book their own interpretations) he kept his answer brief and to the point. He said that he sees the essential theme as being Judaism – what it means to be a Jew. At one point he had thought of calling it ‘The Gospel According To Josephus Flavius,’ reinforcing the focus on the religious dimension to the piece. An alternative conclusion that I took from reading it was that by providing us with the multiple religious perspectives (Jewish, Christian, Bhuddist) – all looking at the life of Jesus – Tidhar is able to present a more balanced view of the man and his teachings away from religiously political insistence.
As well as being a fun book – and it is a playful read – it does contain a true sense of spirituality. Perhaps the ground it treads isn’t as new or exciting as I had hoped but I can certainly appreciate the book for what it is. Would I recommend you pay the full whack for the print version? Probably not, unless you are a completionist. If you can get hold of an e-book version, or if it comes out as part of an anthology later on, then I do recommend you give it a read. I enjoyed the book, but it was so different from what I thought I was getting (and would loved to have read) that I can only really give it…
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak