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Amélie Nothomb: Soif (Thirst)

Any novel that opens with the sentence I have always known that I would be condemned to death looks as though it could be interesting. However, it all changes a couple of paragraphs later when we realise that the man who is going to be condemned to death is Jesus Christ.

In this interview (in French) Nothomb states that all her previous books were merely leading up to her writing her Jesus book. She had not written it before because she had not considered herself suitably prepared to do so. How readers will react to it will depend, to a considerable degree, on their views on the Christian religion. It certainly is not your typical Nothomb novel.

The story takes place during the trial and condemnation by Pontius Pilate, his night in prions before the crucifixion, the stations of the cross, the crucifixion, the removal of the body and the resurrection. It is narrated by Jesus, giving both a first-hand account of what he is feeling and thinking at any given moment but also, simultaneously, looking back at events and also looking forward to the impact the crucifixion will have on the world and how the world has reacted to it.

I doubt if this novel will get the approval of the Catholic church as it certainly does not seem to accord with standard Catholic doctrine. The Jesus of this novel, while well aware of his deity and his role as such, is very much a human, showing a variety of human traits. This is quite simply because he has a human body. He points out that God did a pretty good job creating the human body when he did not have one himself but, at the same time, because he did not have one and know exactly what it feels to have one, he did not do a perfect one.

Jesus feels pain. Sometimes, for example when he is being whipped before carrying the cross to Golgotha, he can more or less ignore the pain. At other times, for example when he is on the cross, he really does feel the pain. But it is not only pain he feels, but a variety of human emotions. While not critical of God as his father, he is not too positive either. However, he tells us on several occasions what good parents Mary and Joseph were and how much he loved and admired them. More particularly, he tells us that he fell in love with Mary Magdalene when he first met her and she with him. They have remained in love.

The key emotion, interestingly enough, is, as the title tells us, thirst. He mentions this many times during the course of the book. It is, of course, a key factor when he is on the cross and one of his seven sayings on the cross is I thirst. However, it has a more important role. He states that only when dying of thirst can you become a true mystic. Thirst is, of course, a human feeling s God does not get thirsty.

It is in the area of thirst that he criticises some of the conventional reporting on his life. He maintains that I thirst is the only one of the seven sayings he actually said while on the cross. He comments on John 4:14- whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again which he says, he never said and is utter nonsense. There are other sayings and actions attributed to him that he fervently denies.

One other area where his version differs from the conventional accounts is the miracles. He finds performing miracles physically demanding but once he has done his first and his favourite (described in great detail) – turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana – people expect it of him and he becomes something of a showman , which he is not entirely happy with. However, though, at the time, everyone seems to be very grateful, at the trial, they turn out en masse to complain. The couple married at Cana, for example, said that he produced high quality wine and the guests complained that they had seemingly reserved the best wine for last when they should have served it first. Lazarus complains that after being raised from the dead, he now smells of dead bodies. Others have other complaints. Not surprisingly he is somewhat bitter about this. He is only ashamed of one miracle – his cursing of the fig tree.

At the end he comments that a great writer (actually Proust) said that, after death, the feeling of love became universal love. He tests this after the resurrection with Mary Magdalene. He disagrees with Proust.

As mentioned this is quite an unusual book for Nothomb but also one that it is not going to be welcomed by the Catholic church. As someone who is not in the slightest bit religious but was brought up in the Christian tradition and is therefore very familiar with the conventional story, I must say I did find it interesting, even if some of her ideas seemed to me to be a bit odd. No doubt, whether you enjoy it or not, will depend on your religious views.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Albin Michel
First English translation in 2021 by Europa Editions
Translated by Alison Anderson