God remade in man's image
In 1976, Edmonton computer analyst Clement Leibovitz was told by doctors he had cancer of the prostate; in 1980, he was told he had one year to live.
Soon after, he began work on this tender, thoughtful theological fantasy, which combines whimsy and high philosophy in an attempt to remake God in its creator's own image.
"Any time you reach definite concepts about God, you are almost certain to be wrong" says the 61-year-old author, who is still very much alive five years later to quietly celebrate his book's publication. "All you can really say is what God is not."
Memoirs of God takes the form of a personal journal found in the cell of French mental hospital, after an inmate known as Lanterne has mysteriously disappeared. As the seraphim slightly panicked director of the asylum assures us in his notes preceding the text, Lanterne is a garden-variety madman, except in one respect: "This patient's personification of God is characterised by an internal logic so coherent that we must ask ourselves if in this case, the madness had not sharpened the logical ability of the patient.
" That Lanterne has managed to escape through a locked door, taking another inmate with him is no mystery to the director: obviously, he had an accomplice. That his manuscript has also disappeared, and that he was able to prepare it in the first place without paper or anybody's noticing, are matters less easily explained.
The God presented in the opening pages of these "memoirs" is a benign, serenely self-satisfied deity who has looked upon his creation and seen that it's all right. Then he is unceremoniously hauled before a jury of his peers to be judged on the record of his divine actions. Predictably, he is bemused; having always considered himself secure, omnipotent and omnipresent, it had not even occurred to him that other gods and universes might exist. His judges, for their part, are unimpressed with the violence and capricious record quickly unravelled before them: tricks played upon Adam, wars declared and fought by divine order, slavery given an enduring biblical imprimatur.
A series of witnesses brought forward to represent mankind only makes matter worse. Eve makes a convincing case that she was only following God's order to go forth and multiply, and an authorial proxy named Clement also appears, it one splendidly comic and passionate passage, to plead the cause of "all the people that doubt." Only the unexpected intervention of a character witness named Jesus diverts the conclave from retribution "Do not judge my father yet!" he pleads "Make him a man for a necessary time and then re-establish him on the throne of the universe which he has created." His will is done.
On earth, God is rather improbably gentled by a puppyish attraction to a young French farm girl. It is here, after some exhilarating stretches of debate served up with a vaudevillish flair, that Memoirs of God turns both mystic and mushy. Until then, though, it is one of the most remarkable books of this publishing season, and certainly one of the most curious.
Dr. Leibovitz says that he was prompted to write this first novel-cum-meditation by the ministrations of his "religious friends" concerned for his salvation. A graduate of the Technion in Haifa, Israel, he immigrated to Canada in 1969, but had long since given up the practice of his Jewish faith, and with it any conventional belief in a divine hand. He appreciated his friends' concern, but "the idea of a god who would deprive me of eternity merely because, in my soul and conscience, I honestly believed that he did not exist," was one he could not accept. Thus he sat down to create this substitute. He is aware that some readers will be offended by a book that challenges their sacred texts, and in some passages does for the Lord what Walt Disney did for mice. "I beg ever reader who is a believer to see in it an 'ode' to Him," he writes in his gently argued preface, "not a blasphemy."
What he has created, in fact, is a gesture of conciliation to the community of believers, as well as a gracious demurral Memoirs of God does not say that there is no creator -- only that he must surely be a greater, stronger, more generous one than appears in the Bible. It is not an easy book to read, and at times Dr. Leibovitz is as pedantic in his challenges to the Old Testament as those theologians who take its every word literally. But given his almighty ambition, and given the circumstances of its writing, Memoirs of God commands respect as an act of illuminating literary and human courage. Frank Maher