Fact #1 that I learned from Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel: some Catholic priests can get married. The protagonist of this book is Alex Andreou, an Eastern Catholic priest who lives in the Vatican with his five-year-old son. As an Eastern Catholic, he says the liturgy in Greek and is culturally similar to Greek Orthodox Christians, but he obeys the pope. His father was also an Eastern Catholic, and Alex and his brother Simon were born and raised inside the Vatican. His father died when Alex and Simon were teenagers, and their mother died shortly later. The adult Alex lives a life similar to the lives of single parents everywhere: he cares for his young son, Peter, while also relying on a host of neighbors and a nun named Sister Helena to fill in the gaps when he needs to work, which isn’t very often. Alex teaches the gospels at a pre-seminary, which is sort of like a high school, I think. But in spite of the fact that school is in session during the events of the novel, Alex never goes to work, or calls anyone to explain why he is not coming to work. I was always under the impression that priests had, I don’t know, shit to do – especially priests that are also teachers. This little failure of verisimilitude bothered me here and there while I was reading, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.
Fact #2 that I learned from The Fifth Gospel: the Vatican has its own supermarkets. It’s a country, of course, and an entire country without supermarkets would be an inconvenient place to live. Having lived in the Vatican his whole life, Alex knows it intimately. The plot of this fast-paced novel darts in and out of the Vatican’s pharmacies and supermarkets, parking garages and gardens, and I enjoyed the lesson in the day-to-day operations of the smallest country in the world.
Like all countries, the Vatican also has a State Department, which is called the “Secretariat.” Alex’s brother Simon, a Roman Catholic priest, works for the Secretariat and spends most of his time in Turkey. Simon returns to the Vatican frequently to report in on his diplomatic work and also to maintain a relationship with Alex and Peter. At the beginning of the novel, Alex and Peter are awaiting such a visit. Along with the rest of the Vatican, they are also waiting eagerly for the opening of a new exhibit in the Vatican museum, an exhibit curated by a friend of Simon’s named Ugo Nogara. On the night Simon is expected to arrive, he calls Alex and insists that he meet him at a secluded piece of church-owned property called Castel Gandolfo. When Alex arrives, his brother in covered in blood and kneels beside Ugo Nogara’s dead body.
If you’re making a connection between this opening scene and another, more famous novel that begins with the murder of a museum curator, you are on to something. This novel is very much in the spirit of The Da Vinci Code – and, even more so, thanks to the Vatican setting, the Angels and Demons. If you’re a stickler for realistic, subtly written literary fiction, there is no need for you to read this book. I do love a good race-against-the-clock-because-all-of-Western-culture-hangs-in-the-balance plot line every once and a while, and I was in the mood for this one when I first picked it up a couple of weeks ago. If you do read The Fifth Gospel, you’ll find it much better written than Dan Brown’s novels, and you’ll also find it refreshingly free of the Harvard-professor-meets-beautiful-brunette-underling dynamic that seems so essential to Brown’s work. Alex does have a love interest of sorts in this book: his own wife, Mona, who suffered a psychotic break when Peter was a year old and then left the Vatican without a trace. For four years, Alex has mourned the loss of Mona, whom he still loves, and just when this novel starts rocking and rolling with its Brown-esque plot – which, yes, involves a missing ancient manuscript that will change the way the world looks at the Catholic Church forever – Mona reappears. On the one hand, neither Mona nor Peter really needs to be in this novel. Alex and Simon could chase around looking for manuscripts and relics just fine without Mona’s lingering guilt and Peter’s childish fears. However, their presence humanizes Alex. When Alex fights to save Simon, he is doing so on some level for Peter. When Alex begins to invite Mona back into his life, he is aware not only of the possibility of his own pain and loss if she leaves again, bot also of Peter’s. And then Alex has to renege on a promise to Peter that they will call Mona, the high stakes – Peter’s anger and feelings of betrayal – are clear.
I’m going to hold off on summarizing the plot any further. It involves Ugo Nogara’s exhibit and a newly rediscovered manuscript called the Diatesseron, and it involves the Fourth Crusade and the Catholic-Orthodox split and the Shroud of Turin and the differences between the Gospel of John, which emphasizes Jesus’ divinity, and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which emphasize Jesus’s humanity. I did learn a good deal about early Christianity, and I enjoyed that learning process a great deal. The plot also involves the reappearance of a figure from Alex’s and Simon’s past, plus any number of Alex’s friends from his Vatican childhood, plus the reasons behind his father’s death and the fact that Pope John Paul II secretly made Simon a bishop and granted him a mission of key importance to the dying John Paul.
And finally, Fact #3 about The Fifth Gospel: Ian Caldwell can write. While Dan Brown’s terrible sentences are uniformly mocked, Caldwell’s prose is transparent most of the time, occasionally punctuated by sentences that are truly beautiful. I regret that I didn’t keep a list of sentences that I especially admired, and such sentences are always hard to find in hindsight. But I’ll share a couple. First, when Alex is contemplating his reunion with Mona and the way he has kept his apartment identical to the way it was when she lived there, Caldwell writes, “Like all good Romans, Peter and I have built our roads around our ruins” (170). And later, when Alex and Simon are waiting for the results of Simon’s trial (he’s accused of murdering Ugo), Caldwell writes, “Lick by lick, the candles on the table hollow themselves out” (421). Hell, this sentence is so good that I forgot to be annoyed that it’s in present tense.
Don’t read this book if the genre of The Da Vinci Code makes you cringe; there’s probably too much overlap for someone who truly loathes far-fetched European literary/theological thrillers. But if you enjoy the genre and want to read a novel that manages this kind of plot while also featuring well-drawn characters, a contemplative tone, and highly competent prose, The Fifth Gospel may be just the book for you.