Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Lies: The Secret Books - Lies, forgery and antisemitism in the nineteenth century

A discussion between Marcel Theroux and Rye Holmboe

Mear One mural

8 May 2019

Defaced ‘Mear One’ Mural, Hanbury Street, East London. Photo: Stuart Holdsworth (www.inspiringcity.com) CC-BY-ND 4.0. Mear One’s mural has been the object of debate on anti-semitism that led to its painting over.
Your most recent novel, The Secret Books, recounts in fictional form the story of Nicolas Notovich, a Russian journalist and adventurer who is best known for publishing an alternative life of Jesus Christ. What drew you to this subject?

Ive always been fascinated by Biblical apocrypha — those non-canonical stories that never made it into the authorized account of Jesuss lifeWe think of the Bible story as so settled and inevitable, when in fact its only one version of a number of competing stories. This first hit home when I read Elaine Pagelsbook The Gnostic Gospels, about the various early Christian texts discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. Of these, the one that I subsequently read in its entirety and have often returned to over the years is the Gospel of Thomas. Its such a mysterious and lovely piece of writing. To me, it also feels like it might be indebted to other religious traditions.  

After I first read it, I began trying to find links between early Christianity and BuddhismThis led me to Holger Kerstens interesting but rather disreputable book, Jesus Lived in India. What I learned from Kerstens book was that in the late nineteenth century, a Russian adventurer called Nicolas Notovitch claimed to have found a manuscript in a monastery in Ladakh that told the story of Jesuss sojourn in India.

First of all, I was amazed that I had never heard of this story beforeIt had all the ingredients of an Indiana Jones movie: a dashing Russian adventurer travelling through the Himalayas at the height of the Great Game; a manuscript proving the links between Christianity and BuddhismIncredible!  

But, much as I wanted to believe that Notovitch was telling the truthit became apparent that something rather different was going on.

I read his bookThe Unknown Life of Jesus (La Vie inconnue de Jesus Christ)published in Paris in 1894. I was struck by a number of significant departures from the gospel accounts of Jesuss lifeMost notably different was his account of the crucifixionNotovitchs gospel reverses the conventional version of Jesuss trial, that is, he claims that its the Jewish elders who plead for mercy while Pilate insists on crucifixion. The Jewish elders even wash their hands of the decisionthe symbolic gesture that we associate with Pilate.  

I sensed then that one of Notovitchs real motives for claiming to have found the gospel was to rebut the view that the Jews as a people bear a special responsibility for the death of Jesus.

It took me a while to appreciate the significance of this seemingly trivial reordering of events. But as soon as you read a little of the history, you begin to understand how prominently the deicide accusation figures in the long tradition of Christian anti-semitismAs a Russian Jew, Notovitch knew what the consequences of this accusation were and what cruelty it had been used to justifyI understood that in a strange, noble, crazy, idiosyncratic way, Notovitch was trying to rewrite history.

So in a way Notovitch’s story expressed a certain truth, albeit in fictive form. In some ways your novel seems to do this itself, a bit like a game of Russian dolls. Does that make sense to you? I wonder if this might account for your uses of anachronisms, like the appearance of a Coca-Cola or an iPhone. Which leads me to a broader question: what for you is the responsibility of the novelist towards history, or what we perceive to be historical truth?

I think Notovitchs book showed a greatin fact, prescientawareness of the power of stories in an age of mass mediaUnearthing a bit more of his history and knowing that he was in Paris from the 1880s until his death sometime around World War II, it occurred to me that he would have knownperhaps even have been involved withthe great literary forgery of that period: the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of ZionThis was cooked up by the Tsars secret police, probably on the orders of their chief in Paris, a man named Pyotr Rachkovsky. It purports to be the minutes of a meeting held by a Jewish organization that secretly controls world events. The members discuss the ways they control the media, manipulate the global economy, and deceive the masses about their real intention, which is to establish Jewish dominion over the world.

The Protocols is patently plagiarized, has been debunked umpteen times, and yet still has adherentsPerhaps even more malignly, its tropes have become detached from the text and have a kind of zombie existence beyond itTo give one exampleI think if Jeremy Corbyn had known anything about the Protocolshe wouldnt have made the mistake of sticking up for a mural that might easily have been used to illustrate it.

When I embarked on the book, I had a sense that I wanted to use it to explore my understanding of stories and storytellingTheres a viewless common now, in the years following Trumps election and Brexitthat stories are a wondrous gift and encode the wisdom of our ancestors, and so forth. Thats partly true, but I think we all know now that stories can be weaponized, be cruel, unjust, and can even inhibit rational thought.

The anachronisms are thereto some peoples annoyanceas a kind of stone in the readers shoeThere are obviously lots of different ways of consuming texts. One, rather naïve one, is that if somethings in print, it must be trueThis is related to the idea that a text might actually be sacredbe backed by the word of God, or have the kind of supra-historical genius behind it that some people attribute to the constitution of the United StatesIm quite a gullible person, by nature. Im inclined to believe what people tell meI certainly suspend disbelief pretty easilyBut I also know how much sweat and compromise goes into the construction of stories, whether as texts or as filmsWith The Secret BooksI wanted the reader to be in the kitchen as the story gets created, rather than having it revealed to them from under a silver salver in its finished state.  

There are historical facts that I would never play fast or loose with, but Im not sure I ever felt it as an obligation to historical truthThere are historical novelsIm thinking of Patrick OBrians Aubrey and Maturin novelswhere the whole point is the exact and loving depiction of a historical milieuThat wasnt the purpose of mine.

I felt a kind of anxiety in your novel about that, a fear that you were writing a theoretical or postmodernist novel, one that is self-reflexive. You almost begin with a disclaimer, affirming early on in the novel that:  
I wondered if was possible to write a story that bore witness to the unrepeatable crisis of its own creation. But I was constitutionally hostile to experimental fiction, and when it crossed my mind that I might be inadvertently writing some kind of deconstructed novel, I felt like punching myself in the face.
And your novel in many ways is highly self-conscious, even if it also reads as a kind of swashbuckling adventure story, which I read at a gallop. I wanted you to speak a little about the composition of the novel: it feels episodic, almost like montage, and you compress many different times and spaces in it.

Yes – that’s right. I think I might have said that I was constitutionally hostile to experimental fiction. There is a discomfort within me about it. It’s probably because I think it’s rather easy to write ‘difficult’ fiction, and amazingly hard to do the basic tasks of writing: credible characters, plausible motivation, and a decent story. Sometimes it’s just hard to do the most mundane things with a character – have them park a car, or, less mundanely, break some terrible news to another character without lapsing into cliché. It’s relatively easy to do tricks like have Jacques Derrida show up on page 12, or subvert a story’s ending.

At the same time, I’d like to think that a certain self-consciousness and self-awareness is part of story-telling from the very beginning. Hamlet is not the beginning, obviously, but it is 400 years old, and when Hamlet says ‘memory holds a seat in this distracted globe’, he’s reminding the audience that they’re watching a play at the Globe and he’s an actor in it. With the writers I really love and go back to, I feel like I have a sense of the person behind the fiction.

 Even with, say, a naturalistic writer like Alice Munro, I imagine Alice Munro is behind the vision, channelling it, and it’s not that she’s suppressing all sense of herself. Everything, her word choice, observations, her morality, is implied in the writing and it’s a person you feel in sympathy with. Dickens too! With Dickens, at times, I imagine I can feel all that suppressed shame about the blacking factory. Or Magwitch showing up – the shameful father! — demanding Dickens/Pip acknowledge the most humiliating details about his past. I feel those levels of awareness – that it’s a story that’s serving the writer’s needs in all sorts of complicated ways — are not part of postmodernism, but part of understanding the complexity of human communication. 

With The Secret Books I had the idea that the core of the book is a man telling his life story, that it’s being recorded on wax cylinders. And of course, the first thought I had was that the book would be a transcription of the recordings. But then I thought about movies, and the convention whereby someone starts telling a story, ‘I had arranged to meet Rocco at the dive bar on the corner of wherever’, and suddenly you cut to the actual scene and have it dramatized in front of you. A whole life is — generally — so long and so full of longueurs that this way I could compress it to the moments that were significant, or that Notovitch claimed were significant. 

To me, it was really just an economical way of telling a story that covered a huge amount of time and space. It felt liberating, because it avoided the problem that you have with a real biography – of having to write about the boring parts of your subject’s life in detail.

One of the interesting aspects of secrecy is the implication that the secret conceals a truth. I think that is what makes conspiracy theories so attractive. Can you offer some reflections on that issue in relation to the novel. in a way that story, and perhaps its writing, is motivated by the idea of a concealed truth, even if that truth turns out to be a fabulation?

Secrets are seductive for many reasons, but I think youre right that one of the attractive aspects of a secret or secret knowledge is that it suggests there is, somewhere, an explanation for the bizarre and troubling world in which we find ourselves. The Gnostics, who based their version of Christianity on the idea that to be saved you have to be inducted into a special secret about reality, are an early example of this. It speaks to a deep hunger for a total explanation that will make sense of everything. My main experience of being a human is of constantly forgetting important truths, finding that certain important values are often contradictorytruth and kindness, freedom and equalityand struggling to make sense of a world that often seems incoherent. But there are a couple of places where you can expect to get the reassurance of a total explanation of the world. One is in a novelor a work of art, and the other is in the arms of a cultA cultish explanation of the worlduncontradictory, coherentrelieves its adepts of the burden of doubt and ambivalenceI think a work of art presents you with an image of reality and encourages you to play with it, but never expects you to mistake it for a picture of how the world actually works.

Marcel Theroux was in conversation with Dr Rye Dag Holmboe at the IAS, discussing the publication of his book The Secret Books. Find more information here.

Marcel Theroux is a novelist and broadcaster. He has published five novels. His second novel, The Paperchase, won the Somerset Maugham Award. His fourth novel, Far North (2009) was a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was awarded the Prix de l’Inaperçu in 2011. His most recent novel, The Secret Books, was published in 2017 by Faber & Faber. He lives in London.

Rye Dag Holmboe is Fellow in Contemporary Art at University College London. His writings and interviews have been published in The White Review, Art Licks, and in academic journals.

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