Michael Arditti is an accomplished and fluent writer, with the sensibility of a philosophical mandarin. In his new novel, education and research combine with well-honed narrative skills to produce an epic excursion through millennia of Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history.
It is Arditti’s fortune not to live in a culture that hands down fatwas. His theme, well-enfolded in layers of deft story-telling, is that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.
The angel Gabriel introduces episodes spanning five epochs since Abraham. Recurrent is the question of what actually happened at Sodom.
What was the crime of the men of that town which caused the Lord to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbours? What morality is implied by Lot’s daughters’ incest with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back towards the town’s smouldering ruins when warned not to, assuring her metamorphosis into a pillar of salt?
Arditti threads these conundrums through the Babylonian exile of the Jews; Corpus Christi pageants of medieval England; creation of art in Florence in the face of Savonarola’s destructive intentions; exploration of the Holy Land by Victorian missionaries; and machinations of the film business in the era of Aids. At each stage, he focuses via one homme moyen sensuel beset by conflict between conscience and realpolitik: a Hebrew scribe, a priest-confessor, Sandro Botticelli and so on. Their dilemmas pivot around whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, contra naturam, to be rooted out, tolerated, celebrated or concealed.
Arditti’s own position is clear — the cruelty to which those indulging in gay sex have been subjected is revolting. Ideologies that lead to gay-baiting, hating and martyrdom are themselves pathological. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. The actual acts that Arditti depicts are, by comparison, innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or — very often — compensation for what might otherwise be a thankless, punishing existence.
Arditti’s joy in painting his tableaux will appeal to those who share his taste for aesthetic exactitude. His zeal in retelling history from their point of view will comfort those who feel that their kind has been prey to unmerited obloquy, or worse, for too long.
Related issues are subsidiary — the situation of women, for example, or the fate of heterosexual passion, here largely eclipsed by a tedium that is seen as inherent in what society deems proper marriage. Yet something of the atmosphere of a Pasolini film lights up even these glancing reflections, giving them, too, a halo alongside Arditti’s more ardent projections in a radiance shading into chiaroscuro.
Stoddard Martin is a novelist and critic