Jesus and Magdalene (Line by Lion Publications, 2016). The ambitious title intrigued me enough to give it a go. I wasn’t disappointed. João Cerqueira’s novel has elements of humor, theology, ecology, and ethics. It’s timing, perfect. So much so that I did wonder whether Cerqueira is picking a fight or just poking fun at contemporary society. The story of Jesus and Magdalene is biblical, common knowledge for many. However, Cerqueira gives their narrative a fantasy-twist as he reincarnates this ancient couple in an alternate, present day earth and through their eyes, holds a mirror up to the modern world.
What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Cerqueira’s prologue contemplates this idea and spins it wickedly. “[H]e won’t have to be born from a virgin … in a world where paternity tests are commonplace.” “[T]he three kings wouldn’t come, laden with gifts, … [they] would be detained on suspicion of terrorism.” “Fasting for forty days and forty nights wouldn’t be repeated either … given how easy it is to call for a pizza.” What’s more, “he wouldn’t consider that looking is a form of adultery,” “Nor would he take a stance on … the Catholic Church[.]” Instead, he might be condemned because “if [Jesus] had married Magdalene nobody would be obliged to be celibate and none of this would have happened.”
I laughed out loud as I read the first eight pages, but please don’t tell my grandmother.
Cerqueira’s writing is witty with sarcasm and humor. Lots of humor. It is a black comedy of sorts that pokes fun at religion and science, but also has ethical undertones of a cautionary tale. The story opens with an environmental group, Green are the Fields, whose keystone members are none other than the twelve apostles. They are leaderless, but at the helm are Judas and Mary Magdalene who don’t always see eye to eye, but more or less tolerate each other, as frenemies often do when working together. I found it remarkable that Judas was made a heroic character who along with Mary Magdalene and the rest of the Greenies fight for Mother Earth.
The Greens, as they are also referred to in the story, are not an ordinary environmentalist group. They are an extreme environmentalist group wielding ecoterrorism as their choice of weaponry when people don’t agree with their green opinions—the dangers of GMO, in particular. They long to be respected by Greenpeace and there is talk of other present day activists in the real world that I have actually watched on television. Here, Cerqueira does a nice job blending fantasy with reality. Then Jesus comes into the story, an innocent, partially dragged into Magdalene’s agenda. As I read further, I understood that Jesus and Magdalene knew each other from a vague reference, but somehow the others don’t recognize him. Its like they all forgot they had past lives. Jesus, himself, seems like he has amnesia, as an omniscient narrator compares him throughout the novel to his prior deeds from the New Testament of the Bible. Yet, Jesus is still the patient, loving man, but in the modern setting his passivity doesn’t work well for him nor does it satisfy Magdalene’s lust for action and justice. In this light, Jesus is not as discernible as his followers who, in this reality, he now follows.
Contrary to Jesus, is Cerqueira’s Magdalene. She is fierce. She has shed her religious trappings in the modern world and believes like a zealot that “religion only serves to hinder scientific advances, to oppress women, and to divide men.” She also believes in the “noble cause” and fills her pride with the idea of giving without expecting profit. Did I mention she slapped Jesus in an argument over abortion? I like this Magdalene. She is surprising.
It is also notable that Cerqueira also fills his story with many modern references. There are so many facts pulled in and around the storyline from academia, popular culture, economic and historical references, technology, theology, science and social injustices such as the exploitation of third-world workers by multinationals in the chocolate industry. The outer-story ring is about GMOs and the reader is led through the inner rings of Cerqueira’s story to a central theme. Along the way, readers will continue to find many footnoted sources peppered throughout the novel as well as allegory and a few obvious clichés.
Among the historical sources is the Athens Charter on page 210 that stopped me in an “oh, this is interesting” kind of way. Created in 1933 by well-known architects and urban planners of that era, the charter was designed with the central idea that all of society should have the fundamental right to happiness found in the home and in the access to the beauty of the city. This idea inspired the development of the fictional “New Europe” community created for the multi-ethnic population that live on the outside of the bigger community of St. Martin in the novel and is another example of reality blending with fiction. What’s more, in the narration about New Europe there is mention of the ancient Greek Athenian society and Thomas More’s Utopia that are also held up for the reader to contemplate. Yet, in Cerqueira’s story, this new community is broken. The irony, however, is not wasted.
Indeed, I enjoyed all the abstract concepts—with so many ideas, modern and old, that Cerqueira presented and the thinking I did during my ascent to the main storyline. In fact, I had a moment of déjà vu. I felt like I was back in my undergraduate years, sitting in a philosophy or sociology class discussing hidden meanings along with deep thoughts related to society. In this light, I can see Cerquiera’s Jesus and Magdalene being college book—listed along side the likes of Sophie’s World and, of course, the classic Utopia.
João Cerquiera’s smart novel, Jesus and Magdalene, disrupts the contemporary narrative with its provocatively witty style and its ethical pushback, creating a unique space for itself in entertaining reading. It won the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards, was nominated book of the year in 2016 by the Latina Book Award, and recently won the silver medal in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Award.
João Cerqueira is an award-winning author of eight books: Blame it on to much freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães, José de Guimarães: Public Art. His works are published in The Adirondack Review, Magazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rapid River Magazine, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Liberator Magazine, Near to the Nuckle, Narrator International, The Transnational, Bold Type Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, All Right Magazine, South Asia Mail, Praxis, Linguistic Erosion, Sundayat6mag, Literary Lunes, Bombay Review Anthology.
Shelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com