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Nicholas Mosley: Inventing God
A quote from The Observer reviewer, Martin Bright, on the back cover of my edition says Inventing God is an astonishing piece of work with the potential to shift the very way we view the world: surely a contender for the first great novel of the twenty-first century. It is not – either particularly astonishing and certainly not a contender for the first great novel of the twenty-first century. Nicholas Mosley writes novels of ideas and has written some excellent novels in that style. Unfortunately for Mosley, when you write a novel of ideas (as opposed to a work of philosophy), you need to have a structure, plot and characters that put forward those ideas, not have ideas on from which you try to create a structure, plot and characters. All too often this novel seem to be artificially contrived, in order for Mosley to put forward his ideas. While his ideas are certainly interesting, it does not really work as a novel.
The main idea he discusses is clear from the title of the novel. It stems from Voltaire’s famous 1768 quote Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer (If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him). Mosley discusses a range of issues around this topic. Is there a God? If so, what is his function? Do we, as humans, create the God we want for our own needs, often an aggressive, vengeful God? Do we invent God to impose some order on our often random and chaotic world? Is there a difference between the current (i.e. early 2000s) older generation and younger generation view of God? As much of this story is set around the conflict in the Middle East, these questions have particular importance. The ideas he raises – and there are others beyond the God issue – are interesting but they belong in a work of philosophy or culture or religion, presented in the form he presents them and not so much in a novel.
There is a series of plots in his novel, though all are interrelated. Much of the novel revolves around a man called Maurice Goldblatt who probably does not appear in this novel. I say probably because there are a couple of instances when a character may or may not be Goldblatt. However, virtually all the characters have some sort of contact with him. The older characters have been his lover (two of them) or his colleague and his friend, while the younger characters have either known him as children (two of them) or heard about him, in many cases through the Internet, and have been fascinated by his studies. What are his studies? This is not clear. He seems to have been interested in how we as humans are evolving and his thoughts on this topic have influenced various people, though may also have led to more sinister forces showing an interest in him. Goldblatt disappeared some time before the start of this novel and though there have been rumoured glimpses of him (and there are a couple during the novel), no-one can confirm having seen him and he may well be dead. Richard Kahn, a teacher at the American university in Beirut, whom we meet early on and who knew Goldblatt well, falls down a hole at night and feels something that might be bones (but might be sticks) and thinks it might be the bones of Goldblatt. Some people even suggest that Goldblatt is a Christ-like figure and, with his influence on so many people, it is clear that Mosley intends this.
Mosley is clearly interested in the generation gap and we do follow the stories of several young people, even if it smacks of tokenism, with the Jew, the Maronite Christian and the Muslim being to the fore. The Jew is Lisa, an Israeli, who is later called Gaby, who falls down a hole near the Temple which may be an archaeological dig or may be a terrorist secret passage. She is sceptical of Zionism. She will later turn up in an Alevi village. Mosley seems to be putting forward the Alevis as a sort of tolerant version of Islam. Several plot strands will pass through this village. The Muslim and Maronite Christian are Hafiz and Joshua, who have a platonic homosexual relationship when young, till Hafiz (but not Joshua) discovers heterosexuality. Hafiz is a geneticist working on a mysteriously funded programme to determine the genetic difference between Muslims and Jews, so that some sort of bomb can be made to destroy the Jews without destroying the Muslims. He is aware that it is nonsense and is doing his own research. Joshua goes off to England to track down Laura Simmons, Maurice Goldblatt’s former lover. A host of other characters, who all seem somehow to be connected, pop up and add their views on God, the Middle East situation and life.
That Mosley has important things to say is clear. Whether what he has to say is well adapted to the novel format is far less clear. Too often, you feel that the characters are put in artificially contrived situations just to get his ideas across and time and again they sound unnatural. It is a fascinating book, with his ideas on God/religion, the Middle East (it ends with what seems to be the 9/11 attacks) and on how humans might be evolving. However, as a novel, it lacks too much.
First published 2003 by Secker & Warburg