Behold the Man (SF Masterworks 22)
by Michael Moorcock (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 124 pages, paperback; first published 1969, this edition 1999.)
Behold the Man opens with Karl Glogauer trapped in the milky fluid inside his time machine, struggling towards a crack, trying to get out and see if he has succeeded in returning to the time of Christ. (Incidentally, this birth-metaphor of the opening brings an entirely new meaning to the term "born-again Christian"...) Karl Glogauer: a man full of self-doubt and loathing, devoid of self-worth, desperate to understand what it is to be human and if there really is any point to it all.
Found by the Essenes of John the Baptist, he struggles to work out where and when he has emerged. At the same time he has to work out what it is that his strange arrival means to these people: he's in a precarious position - he returned as an observer, yet the simple fact of his presence in this time and place threatens to change the course of events.
The story of Glogauer's arrival in the Middle East of nearly 2000 years ago is interspersed with glimpses of his life in the twentieth century: a young Jewish boy from a broken home, bullied for not fitting in; a young man struggling to understand the interwoven mix of illusion and truth of human beliefs and religion.
As well as being a stunning character study - one of the finest in SF - Behold the Man is a gripping story, one powered by the tension between the familiarity of biblical tales and their subversion and reinterpretation. It retains the power to shock, in its portrayals of Jesus as a drooling imbecile, barely able to say his own name; of Mary, a woman with something of reputation, long married off pregnant to a now bitter and resentful Joseph.
Behold the Man speaks far more eloquently of human compassion and folly and anger than 99% of the claptrap that would be approved of by modern Christianity. One of the great works of twentieth century literature.
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© Nick Gifford 22 January 2000