This is a debut novel from a French author who has lived a fascinating life. He was a Benedictine monk for twenty-two years before his research which challenged the ideology of the Catholic Church led him to quit the order. His memoir about this time of his life (“Prisoner Of God”) was a French best-seller (I haven’t read it but it is on my bookshelves to look forward to) and after publishing a travel book and a number of religious essays he embarked upon this adventure novel which encompasses a number of his research findings into a palatable thriller. Originally published in French this fulfils for me all the criteria for being a very good example of its genre.
Religious conspiracy novels have turned up a-plenty in the wake of the success of the “Da Vinci Code”. Too often at the centre they have some long-held secret which if revealed would shatter the world’s belief systems. Sometimes the secret is held by a small religious cult, sometimes the Templars or Masons and very often, as is the case in this novel, by the Catholic Church. Often these revelations when they come to light in the development of the plot are vague and/or hardly world-changing or just plain silly, but in this case, it is made explicit and would indeed rock the established doctrines of all faiths to their foundations.
Father Nil of St Martin’s Abbey in Val de Loire is researching the Gospels and this has suggested the existence of a thirteenth apostle, who had been airbrushed out of the authorised Bible. His monastery librarian friend is also researching this area and dies in mysterious circumstances. Alongside this is the tale of this unnamed follower, a close friend of Jesus, who was written out of history by a group of men, including some of the other disciples, who, in their ambition and accumulation of power after Jesus’ death suppressed this man’s words. But, as might be expected, this suppression was not total and throughout time there have been small groups of people who have understood the significance of the thirteenth apostle.
With these extraordinary revelations at the core Benoit does not need to resort to the country-hopping and multiple plot-strands of other less successful novels. He builds up the intensity in a way which is in fact comparable to the book the blurb compares it to – Umberto Eco’s “The Name Of The Rose”. By making the discoveries clear to the reader quite early on we don’t need to play guessing games but the significance of such revelations are allowed to dawn upon us. The “baddies” are representatives of a number of different faiths, it’s not just Vatican-bashing, but Benoit obviously has a thing about secrets hidden amongst the papal libraries and vaults that may or not be known by those in charge. To begin with I found the style a little leaden in the way that translations of popular novels can be but the content was so fascinating that I became involved. I have no grounding in theological studies yet the relevance of the 13th apostle was certainly made clear to me, so that was another adventure genre novel pitfall avoided – when you are not even sure what is going on and why. This book was much more satisfying than I was expecting it to be. I had anticipated adventure and globe-trotting and devilish plots when it is actually a successful, intense and ultimately well-structured thriller.
Since this work Benoit’s 2013 novel “The Silence of Gethsemane” has been published in an English translation, which would certainly be worth considering.
The Thirteenth Apostle was published in the UK by Alma Books in 2007