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Children of God: by Lars Petter Sveen

Children of God: by Lars Petter Sveen

Sveen’s stories refuse to follow a predictable structure.

Children of God: by Lars Petter Sveen

4 / 5

Four soldiers go door to door not far from a Mideast capital. They’re ordered to eliminate the helpless inside; a recruit thinks “this wasn’t what we were fighting for.” Cato explains, “We were sent a number of times to clear out insurgents, whether they were poor people with no weapons or small gangs hiding in the hills. We often had to help those who despised us, going on patrol to chase away thieves, getting only angry looks in return, before being ordered to move back into the same areas to suppress revolts among the very people we’d been helping.” Surely his routine sounds familiar.

This narrative comes not from an American infantryman, but from the opening installment in Lars Petter Sveen’sChildren of God. These slightly overlapping and subtly linked stories dramatize the conflicts around those caught up with the arrival of Jesus into Palestine two millennia ago. Sveen enters the consciousness of diverse characters on the fringes of the masses that flock to see the miracle worker and faith-healer’s talks. Never sentimental, satirical or pious, Sveen in the matter-of-fact tone conveyed by Guy Puzey’s translation from the Norwegian relates events steadily and convincingly.

Jacob, in a spin on the Hebrew patriarch of the same name whose birthright was so contested, hears that Jesus may cure his dumbfounded and traumatized condition. His father takes him into the hopeful throng. He hears a “buzzing drone that reminded me of flies. Then I noticed that the sound was coming from the crowd I was standing in. The voices rose like the buzzing rises from a flowering shrub when the sun reaches it.” So Jacob and his father realize that Jesus has arrived. Sveen’s repetition of the adjective and verb in this passage demonstrates his preference for simple description.

Yet this alters depending on the teller. In an omniscient third-person register, the afterlife horror of Ruth and Naomi (names recur from biblical lore throughout the book) forces the reader into underground decay. It’s as if Samuel Beckett conjured up a version of the gloomy Hebrew realm of Sheol. “I Smell of the Earth” features an unnamed figure that enters each scenario. He stays off-stage, shadowed. He does not like the light. Blind, decrepit, ancient and supported by a staff, he eloquently and persistently plots the downfall of those inspired to turning their lives around, those who are tempted towards at least a step closer to goodness. It’s difficult to resist him. He crafts a pitch for each hearer in the most persuasive, intimate logic imaginable. After all, he soundly reasons, his rival’s parables aren’t of this world, “like mine are.”

Although this haunting revenant returns regularly, Sveen’s stories refuse to follow a predictable structure. “The Firstborn” leaps back and forth in confusing chronology as the father’s reminiscences expand and contract. A woman lusted after by one of “God’s chosen thieves” in the title entry soon is revealed in the next story as Anna, the gospel “woman at the well.” Two of her partners she has known come alive, too.

“When Reuben left her the first time, it wasn’t the memories of when he broke her leg, beat her, or threatened her with a knife that made her hobble along the sides of the houses, asking if people had seen him. What made her hobble about where those times when he had just sat next to her.” Sveen’s skill at evoking a mood displays itself well.

By the halfway point, these events begin to blur into one another. Eventually their protagonists meet, brought together in the wake of the itinerant preacher’s departure, and the churn stirred up by the indomitable old man who emerges from the miasma. He laments a robber who by an unexpected act of kindness has “pulled himself out of the story I prepared for him.” A fate such as Ruth suffered beneath the earth may not be evaded. But these children of God rally in Capernaum for a debriefing after the claims of a resurrection none of them were there to see. One estimates “it won’t be long until we start arguing about what is true” as to what Jesus taught. His apostle Andrew, the most faithful of Anna’s lovers, reassures one of the repentant bandits: “We’re alone, but he’s here.” Existentialist tones infuse these fictions with everyday reckoning of big questions, which for them no less than us lead to elusive answers.

Cato reflects, long after his mission serving King Herod’s decree in Bethlehem, how “something lured me in.” He retires from his martial career to search for meaning. The wizened foe summons up “an army of darkness.” But there’s now a defector or two. These women and men seek closure. However, the trouble with the testimonies about the one they all ponder is that “they’re never complete.” So shrugs an enslaved survivor from the rebels who penetrates the sanctuary of the Temple to assassinate the priests whom they regard as collaborators with Rome. Soon Jerusalem will fall to these “occupying forces.” Nevertheless, Reuben states of Jesus’ message: “it’s a belief” that an empire “can’t wash away.” What persists, glimpsed rarely and never held, is “a little light” a few in these pages catch for a moment in their field of vision.

Sveen leaves it up to the reader to reflect on how these struggles over a sandy soil and rocky ranges continue to resonate in our times. This gritty reimagining of scriptural sagas for secular sensibilities joins Shulamith Hareven’s Thirst: The Desert Trilogy about the Exodus and its aftermath, Jim Crace’s depiction of a beleaguered Jesus in the wilderness as Quarantine and José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Cain on a short shelf of worthy versions.
What endure as endless in all of these contemporary chronicles of ancient testaments are the incursions of invaders who oppress the unarmed natives. As with the original inspiration, the pace slows with deep immersion into portentous dialogue and personal monologue. The second half builds on backstories of this band of brothers and sisters; the excitement lags after Jesus has left the premises, intentionally or not. Instead of a climax, the plot drifts into indecision. Its verisimilitude refuses Christian convention. No “come to Jesus” wrap-ups will satisfy the lukewarm congregated here.

Sveen’s eclectic, dense evocation may test the attention span of current audiences less knowledgeable of the ancient contexts, full of allusions to sayings and scenes. Perhaps his reframing of oft-sketched encounters may draw skeptics into the hallowed sources. Whatever one’s belief system, the need for mature depictions of these fundamental episodes reminds readers of the ability of original, bold artists to enliven oft-told tales.

Reuben concludes: “They created man who can’t see clearly, men who’ll take up arms to fight for our ways, for our land and our God.” In voices that sustain “a spark of the great fire,” apocalyptic fears end Children of God. Yet speculation leaves audiences and characters with an encouragement that neither violence nor brutality can endure against injustice. The lasting resistance, a blunt holdout against Jesus observes, must arise out of peace and not hatred. A familiar moral but one still not learned long after.

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