A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem: by Philip Challinor

In this strange and alternate Jerusalem, history flits back and forth along a timeline that seems almost obsolete or abandoned, its robots and computers junked by considerations of what might have been, could have been... And it is quite a coup to restore to Pontius Pilate his soldierly sensibilities, to hone them with political considerations to the point where he resembles the undiplomatic warrior of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem, it is very much a soldier who makes reconnaissance of the politics of occupation and corruption, and who finds in their prisons the same man who is locked inside the gulag of the Gospels.

Jerusalem draws on the instinctive similarity between these two men - one a soldier, the other a being with an almost militant capacity for pain, which the former recognises as the kind of self-abnegating battle fatigue that often leads to the heroic sacrifice or the death march or the hunger strike. Pilate identifies the nightmare in which Jesus is caught by recourse to his own - he has navigated the stations of his own cross through the course of a day of meetings; and it is here that the author's invention becomes apparent - a wholly original piece of exposition by interrogation. Each meeting seems to complicate Pilate's mood and to simplify his resolve; yet just as the action remains locked, the technology has moved on and, apart from Pilate, the only curiosity is displayed by Jesus, whose touching upgrade of a robot suggests that in another life he might have been a software engineer. But he cannot affect sentient parties - prejudices and attitudes remain fixed, even as technology marks the world around them. He and Pilate are cognisant of a change; the others are lost to glitch and cognitive lag.

The book has a remarkably dry and acrid wit, disturbed only by the metallic tang of blood which seems to suffuse with the prose, rendering it brittle and bitter. The dialogue is absolutely gripping, as each station, Centurion, High Priest, or Judge, fumbles a way to excuses taken from a book which is lived but unread. Rising above these, as touching and as brutal as any act of mercy, is Pilate's final encounter with Jesus, a genuinely affecting moment, the power of which cannot be diminished, and which begs the question - just who is being released, and from what? In the end we can't help but draw the impression that this timeline is ended.

To my mind there is no modern author who work is so consistently anti-visionary - here it is not that men and women are trapped inside systems; rather they are caught inside the mixed emotions which serve to preserve systems. And that makes all the difference. As it has been remarked that reading Mr Challinor's novels is like being stalked by a cat, it only remains for me to say - true, so long as you remember this cat has serious claws.

A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem can be purchased as a paperback here, or an ebook here.


  1. I've always liked works that give a sympathetic spin to traditionally villainous or dubious characters - Robert Shaw's embittered sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian, who's more intelligent and honest than his masters or, arguably, Robin himself; Caiaphas in Dennis Potter's Son of Man; Satan in Twain's Mysterious Stranger and Ellison's "The Deathbird"; Pilate in ńĆapek's sketches and Bulgakov's masterpiece. The Jesus character was originally going to be the villain of my piece - much closer to the megalomaniac hate-preacher I find in the Gospels. Somehow he evolved (if his fans will excuse the verb) into the much more enigmatic figure in the book, the victim of a sadistic father's eternally-recurring practical joke.

    Thanks very much for another generous and interesting review.

  2. I enjoyed Son of Man a great deal, though it's many years since I watched it; but that line of Jesus addressing the cross is still sort of with me - I should have stayed a carpenter, and you should have stayed a tree. I was brought up in a fairly strict Catholic family, but once I reached my majority I had no use for it, except to identify which side of the tracks I came from in Belfast.

    I agree villains are often worth revisiting - the originals are often portrayed in such stark terms that perhaps they require further turmoil written into them, forever. Maybe that's their purpose.

    At any rate, thanks for a really good read, one of your best; and it prompted me to buy a copy of Deathbird Stories, which I haven't yet read - but I will.

  3. Dementedly imaginative, haunting, horrific, hilarious and prone to occasional fits of moralistic and typographic frenzy. It's been far too long since I last read it, so I've dug out my copy for the weekend.