Monday, June 09, 2008

The Relic discussion: Chapter 3

And now for something completely different…

After enjoying the women and champagne at the end of Chapter 2, Teodorico is transported by dream back to the first century AD. Following Topsius on a whirlwind trip to Jerusalem, we are given a detailed view of the city and temple as it might have appeared at the time. Teodorico has not changed much in his dream since he is intoxicated by women, wishing to keep them company. Instead, Topsius makes sure he views Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Teodorico gets involved in a plot to spirit away an (still alive) alive Jesus after the crucifixion, but the scheme unravels when Jesus dies before the planned escape.

The narration of the dream can be jarring at times. There are a few instances where some discordant notes can give the reader pause. The anachronisms (eyeglasses and cigarettes, for example) are minor and easy to brush off since it is a dream. More questions arise from the knowledge Teodorico shows in the dream—how is he aware of so much? Is it something he “knew” during his dream or did he acquire the knowledge later? The awareness of what subsequently happens after this Passover while actually experiencing it creates a tension regarding time. These questions and paradoxes are ultimately set aside by what he sees and experiences in the dream, not just the known events but a fleshing out of the atmosphere and politics surrounding them.

Why is this chapter in the book? I wish I could talk with the author and get his take. Since that’s not going to happen, I’ll make some guesses based on what struck me. One obvious point is the difference in the Holy Land “back then” and “today” (or at least the time of the tale). Teodorico describes the desolate area he visits but in the dream he marvels over the lushness and beauty in everything he sees. This contrast seems to serve as a metaphor for Queirós’ view of religion—that a once promising idea has been so debased and debauched that the original intent (and potential) has been forgotten. It’s not that things were always rosy regarding religion—the Muslim guards in Chapter 2 are replaced by the Romans used to keep the peace in the dream. (Not that the Romans were always fair, as detailed in the dream). Debates in the temple over arcane and meaningless points show one corruption of the basic message. The willingness to protect the whole (and more likely the self) by allowing the sacrifice of an individual calls into question the intention or motivation of those willing to throw others under the bus.

Some of the more powerful scenes in the dream pertain to Jesus’ humanity and his basic message. Queirós seems to have a respect for Jesus and his message but ultimately doesn’t appear to believe his holiness. The explanation of the empty tomb calls into question the very foundation of Christianity (at worst) and the focus of its message (at best). The author doesn’t pull any punches regarding Jesus himself, showing a decidedly different viewpoint on his treatment of the moneychangers in the temple.

The interesting observation for me is how different Teodorico acts during the dream. At first he behaves the same as in real life, not just in his desire for women but also the personal gain of being privy to what Jesus might say in his presence. But as the dream progresses he changes and shows a reverence and awe for what is happening. The difference is that what is happening in the dream is unadulterated. What Teodorico experiences in Lisbon when surrounded by his overly zealous aunt and her spiritual advisers has added a distance he must travel (and is unwilling to do so) to reach the heart of the religion. It may overdoing it in portraying the entire religion as based on legend, but it definitely gets Queirós point across as to the difference between the humanism of Jesus and the sham piety of Teodorico’s day. Some things are consistent between the two ages, whether it is the fake relics or the moeny to be made from someone else’s faith. But the differences, especially regarding what can be at stake, are even more striking.

I’m not sure if Queirós views that elevating Jesus’ humanism into a religion is the ultimate source of its corruption, but he does highlight the distance it traveled from the original intent. This is masterpiece of a very unique chapter. As Queirós commented early in the chapter about Jesus’ own actions, unintended consequences can undermine the intent of what is planned, which seems to be one theme of the entire book.

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