BOOKS

Retelling the ultimate betrayal story

A TIME FOR JUDAS By Morley Callaghan (Macmillan of Canada,

ANNE COLLINS September 19 1983
BOOKS

Retelling the ultimate betrayal story

A TIME FOR JUDAS By Morley Callaghan (Macmillan of Canada,

ANNE COLLINS September 19 1983

Retelling the ultimate betrayal story

BOOKS

A TIME FOR JUDAS By Morley Callaghan (Macmillan of Canada,

256 pages, $18.95)

The story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as told in the New Testament, moves with the clockwork of fate. The players assume their positions (Mary Magdalene, the original prostitute with the heart of gold; Judas Iscariot, the viper in the nest) to emphasize the impact of the story: the Son of God, betrayed and alone, dies for human sins and plunges the world into darkness that only he can dispel by his rising. Morley Callaghan, in 55 years as a writer, has often used the parable form and must have often wondered how the “right” story can grip and change its readers. That question is the essence of his new novel. In A Time for Judas, he questions the truth of the Christ story— not to undermine it but to explore its metaphorical power.

Callaghan’s narrator, Philo of Crete, is a Greek whose patron and father-in-

law, a wealthy Roman senator, has exiled him to Jerusalem to wait out a scandal caused by the senator’s dubious business practices. Philo acts as a scribe to an important friend of the senator’s, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, but is more interested in Jews than in Romans. The Romans are the great homo-

genizers, organizing and administering a kingdom far from home; the Jews are a conquered desert tribe fiercely turned in on themselves to celebrate and maintain their differences. Through the Jews he meets, the rather ordinary Philo loses a bit of his identification with the conquerors. A saintly and intelligent wandering teacher, Judas Is-

cariot, befriends him, and he falls in love with another Jewish prostitute, Mary of Samaria. But he is most fascinated by a Jewish bandit, Simon of Idumaea, who scorns the tribal religion and whose only god is himself. He lures Philo into a subversive collaboration against Roman law and riches, then ends as one of the men crucified with Jesus. Philo watches Christ die but weeps for the charismatic bandit who went to his death without betraying Philo to the Romans.

The scribe and narrator is caught in his own dramas of betrayal and loyalty, the better to reflect Callaghan’s “true” story of Judas’ betrayal. Judas did not sell out his master for 30 pieces of silver, but because Jesus asked him to, explaining: “Someone must betray me. The story requires it. Now is the time.” That Judas should turn traitor was nonsensical: he was a rich man’s son with no need of money; everyone in Jerusalem knew where the Galilean could be found. But Jesus believed that the best of men should fall through a weak man’s greed and envy—that was a

Morley Callaghan ’s new novel questions the story of Judas Iscariot and challenges the reader’s expectations

“story.” People believed it in spite of what they knew about Judas—even Mary Magdalene, who was the only one ready to forgive him.

The best part of A Time for Judas is the long section in which the distraught Judas tells his story to Philo to record for history’s sake. “Was this his [Jesus’] magic?” Philo wonders. “Making them all act out a story?” Judas says that for Jesus “a man’s life was like a river, a constantly changing river of adventures

in freedom of choice and compassion____

For him, there was only one law—love. Then maybe only one source of evil— betrayal. The whole inner world swinging between love and betrayal— always first in a man’s own heart. If it was time now for him to be betrayed, he would cause ‘betrayal’ to be remembered with horror forever as the death of love.” In Callaghan’s version, Judas does kill himself out of remorse for betraying Jesus: for attempting to substitute the truth for the story that Jesus wanted told.

American critic Edmund Wilson said in the 1960s that Callaghan wrote modern parables which frustrated readers’ expectations and made them think. In A Time for Judas Callaghan has taken an old parable and refashioned it in the image of the themes that have always haunted his work. That he could retell the Christ story with such depth of insight and passion shows that the old moral provocateur is, at 80, honed to his finest edge.

ANNE COLLINS