Children of God by Lars Petter Sveen (Trans. by Guy Puzey)
Graywolf Press, 2018
256 pages / Graywolf
In an essay for BBC Radio 3 entitled “Christmas Father,” the Norwegian writer Lars Petter Sveen describes growing up in a strictly secular household, under a father who was “dubious, if not downright antagonistic towards the idea that his middle son would learn to pray and sing songs about Jesus.” In an interesting cultural reversal, Sveen describes a youthful rebellion the direct opposite of, e.g., a young American Evangelical confronting their parents after reading The God Delusion. Sveen’s own mother wept over the phone as he told her he’d read Kierkegaard and become a Christian. According to Sveen, his mother had said she would break ties with him for only three reasons: “If I got a tattoo, if I was homosexual, or if I became a Christian.” He had broken one of her commandments.
It is this experience of Christianity as illicit or rebellious that frames Lars Petter Sveen’s newly translated novel, Children of God. The novel, a Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize winner and bestseller in Norway, shuffles and violates orthodoxy in favor of freshly considering the stories that constitute a religion. Children of God is concerned less with how exactly Biblical stories have been told than how they could be told, and perhaps why they’re necessary. An epigraph from John 21:25 describes New Testament stories about which, “even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Children of God, then, is presumably one of those books that should be written, and now has been.
The book’s novelistic conceit is to embroider and invent characters that could have existed in the New Testament and entwine their stories with Jesus and other actual Biblical figures. And the invented characters dominate the narrative. Crucial to Sveen’s conception is a focus on characters split and sutured by sins—thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and various wounded—who co-construct a spiritual vision. The book is an inverted hagiography, dragging its people through their doubt and violence. As Sveen writes in a late chapter, “they were all led to the Lord, through a great and powerful darkness.” The children of God make their mothers weep, and weep with them.
What keeps one reading is the structure. According to Google Translate, the second word of the novel’s Norwegian title, Guds barn, is a false cognate (meaning children). But by happy accident, it puns on the kind of bestiary form Sveen has assembled and labeled a novel. The novel is written in separately titled chapters told from different points of view, so one can’t blame a reader for calling it a short story collection—in some sense, it is. Sveen’s novel also resembles other literary hybrids like Daniel Handler’s Adverbs or Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, books of variations on a theme. Yet the structure Children of God seems to be planned after is, unsurprisingly, the Gospels. Different characters retell the same event with differing results, unified by a thorough thematic coherence.
“Little Children” begins with four assassins, Tuscus, Cato, Celsus, and Capito, on their way to kill “a little king of the Jews” for Herod the Great. A bright star haunts their mission as they plan for the murder. Reading it, one comes to expect a faithful retelling of the Christmas story. Several pages into the narrative, however, a voice interrupts the story to invite the reader directly: “there’s a place for you in this story. What you do now may be remembered.” From thereon out, the stories move between Biblical faithfulness and fictional divergence. Stories branch like roots.
The deviations from the Bible are playful and bold. A character named Jacob goes on a mission with his father in “The Firstborn” in the wake of the death of his mother, Sarah, to have Jacob’s stutter healed by Jesus. The Biblical Jacob, however, is the grandson of Sarah and exists in the Old Testament, many generations before Jesus is born, and it is Moses who is mentioned elsewhere as having a stutter. Later in Children of God, in “We Are Alone, You Are Here,” Jesus and his apostles stay the night in a place described like the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus kisses Peter on the cheek and leaves to walk up to the Temple Mount. In the Gospels, however, Judas kisses Jesus that night in the Garden of Gethsemane right before Jesus is arrested and taken to the Sanhedrin. Perhaps the most bizarre and fascinating deviation occurs in “A Light Gone,” when the story of David and Bathsheba—originally found in 2 Samuel, nowhere near the New Testament—is transformed into a story that sounds more like an Old West showdown, ending in a contest between Saul and David, after which, Saul says, “there’ll only be one king left in Jerusalem.”
In addition to the structure, Sveen makes skillful use of other Biblical elements that lend themselves to fictionalizing. It’s easy to forget how many characters with the same name in the same story there are in the Bible—Judas Iscariot and Judas, son of James; Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot; Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene; and Joseph, father of Jesus, and Joseph of Arimathea. Sveen uses this doubling to insinuate his own characters into the Gospel stories. Is the Anna Sveen introduces in “The Black Bird” who meets Jesus at a well the same person as the woman at the well, unnamed in the Gospel of John? By the time you’ve asked the question, Sveen’s already got you hooked into her story.
The character repeated the most in Children of God comes in the form of a man who always introduces himself as, “I am blind, and yet I see many things.” This blind man seems to stand in for Satan, in Sveen’s mythology, but more as a counterfeit Jesus than in direct opposition to him. The blind man gets Jacob to meet with him, for instance, by saying, “follow me to greet the Lord.” After the blind man takes Jacob’s head in his hands, however, Jacob later finds that the stutter Jesus had healed has returned. The world of Children of God is one of a kind of Gnostic duality, where every blessing can be undone by a curse, where every light is balanced with darkness. The blind man steps into almost every story to present the darkness.
The blind man often gives voice to the book’s most dominant theme, that of the power of story. “You should pray for a story to belong to,” he says in a long speech, “one you can believe in, one you can doubt.” A later character asserts about stories, “It’s up to us to understand how they come together; it’s impossible to see the pattern.” The novel uses its interpretation of Biblical material not so much as a viable retelling of the message, but more so a way to examine the mechanics and importance of storytelling. See new patterns and value them. New stories, particularly people’s decisions to write their own new stories, can save. Toward the end of the book, Cato, one of the assassins from the first story trying to kill Jesus, appears again as an old man to tell his redemption story:
Something called to the evil in me, and I obeyed. I chose that story. But I’ve chosen something different now. I don’t want to be a part of the story that was made for me anymore.
In Lars Petter Sveen’s BBC Radio 3 essay, he reveals that his own son has now become an atheist. “‘I don’t believe in a God,’” his son says. “‘It’s all just an invention, whatever.’” The transgression of a story seems to run in his family. In Children of God, however, Sveen proves that what one remembers is why it’s told.