Behold the Man, by Michael Moorcock - tanzeelat's review

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Behold the Man, by Michael Moorcock - tanzeelat's review

Postby tanzeelat » Sun Mar 30, 2008 4:24 am

I first read this years ago, between 1986 and 1989. I remember appreciating Behold The Man at the time, but what I had forgotten was how well-written it is.

Karl Glogauer is sent back through time via some off-stage sleight-of-hand to Biblical Israel. He wants to meet Jesus, for a variety of reasons. Glogauer is a man in search of himself or, failing that, a messiah. Perhaps he imagines that a messiah will present him with the purpose his life seems to be lacking. Certainly, Glogauer’s trip back to 28 AD does give him purpose, although perhaps not the one he had been expecting: Glogauer takes Jesus’s place.

Interspersed within this narrative are episodes from Glogauer’s life, from his childhood in post-war Britain through to his early adulthood as the proprietor of a cult book shop, and including his many relationships, many of which he destroys. While many of these incidents are relatively mundane, some come across as almost barbaric to readers of the turn of the millennium. The playground incidents during Glogauer’s childhood are entirely credible, and likely still happen today. But the summer camp… Glogauer is sent to the Isle of Wight one summer, to a camp run by a sadist. The children are only given their pocket-money after being struck across the back of the hand by a cane—supposedly to “toughen them up”. When Glogauer’s mother later demands her money back, the camp manager simply refuses. End of story. For the 1950’s, that is. 1990’s sensibilities wouldn’t let the incident end there. Perhaps these incidents are satirical—I wouldn’t know: I didn’t grow up during the period in question (or in the UK, for that matter). Perhaps they are, if not semi-autobiographical, inspired by real incidents. They certainly evoke the flavour of the decade.

Elsewhere, Behold The Man is an odd mix of historical scholarship and the Bible. While Moorcock does well to evoke the Israel of the first century AD, the details of Christ’s life are clearly taken from the Gospels, which are now accepted to be historically inaccurate. Jesus, for example, is not an Aramaic name; no one living in Israel at that time would be called it. Nor was Joseph a carpenter: he was of the line of David, i.e., a descendant of the royal house; he would not be working wood for a living. The town of Nazareth wasn’t founded until some 300 years after the Crucifixion. ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ was likely a reference to a religious sect, much like the Essenes, and ‘Judas Iscariot’ probably a corruption of ‘Judas the Sicarii’, another and more militant sect. The role of a messiah in Biblical Israel is well-documented, and does not include any message of “peace and love”, never mind actually founding a new religion. All this was known when Behold The Man was written in 1969—a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls was published in the early 1960’s.

When Glogauer arrives in Israel, he is not sure whether Jesus was a real historical figure or a myth. When he takes Christ’s place, he is consciously acting out the ‘myth’. He bases his actions on those described in the Bible, many of which are themselves conscious re-enactments of prophecies from the Old Testament. We know Jesus was well-educated: he argued with the temple priests over the Scriptures, and so clearly knew them well. The Scriptures prophesised that the messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey. It can’t be accident that Jesus did the same. It certainly wasn’t accident that Glogauer, as Jesus, did so. He even tells his disciples to find him a donkey for his entrance to the city.

In Trillion Year Spree, Aldiss and Wingrove describe Behold The Man as a mainstream novel (the puff is reproduced on the inside cover). And it’s true Behold The Man doesn’t feel like science fiction. The odd detail on Glogauer’s trip through time—the need for protective fluid, for instance—doesn’t hide the fact that the time-travel mechanism is little more than off-the-page hand-waving. This is not a science fictional approach to the central conceit. It’s incidental, because the time-travel is only a device to allow Glogauer to find the apotheosis he has been searching for all his life. The use of Biblical sources for the Israel of 28 AD, rather than historical scholarship, also seems more of a mainstream technique. Sf demands a rational, scientific worldview, which implies that a failure to use hard facts is not science fictional. Although, to be fair, the study of the history of Biblical Israel is in something of a grey area, and the provenance of “hard facts”, and their veracity, is often under dispute, given the various factors that affect their interpretation.

But then, Behold The Man would have been a very different novel if Glogauer’s Israel had been closer to historical actuality. It’s more about myth, and the search for myth (but not the search for its roots, which is a sfnal approach), than it is about a man who travels back in time to Jesus’s time and ends up taking his place on the Cross. If, in sf terms, the time-machine is the central device, then in mainstream terms, the destination of the trip through time is the central device. And the structure of Behold The Man—its episodic nature, detailing Glogauer’s life—argues that a Neurotic Twentieth Century Londoner in Biblical Israel is indeed the central device.

Of course, we can claim Behold The Man for the genre—we already have done: it is, after all, #22 in Millennium’s SF Masterworks. It may have been written with mainstream sensibilities, but it uses a time-machine as an enabling device, which is a concept straight from the heartland of the genre. Moorcock too is a writer fully-identified with science fiction. But, like Orwell’s 1984, I don’t think Behold The Man is science fiction. It’s one of those mainstream books we can happily include in our map of the genre, although its inclusion is mostly honorary. And, like all honorary members of the genre, it has a great deal of literary merit. Recommended.
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Postby Omphalos » Sun Mar 30, 2008 10:40 am

Good review of a great book. Here is a link to my review of this work.
Something is about to happen, Hal. Something wonderful!

-James C. Harwood, Science Fiction Writer, Straight (March 5, 1956 - May 25, 2010)

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