Four was a good number.
So now we’re three. What difference does it make?
We knew where we were, then.
And now we don’t?
It’s an unusual premise. Three Roman soldiers, charged to guard the tomb of a “local rebel,” have awoken from their unintentional slumber to find one of their number missing and the heavy stone rolled away from the mouth of the cave where the body had been laid. Panicked, they try to assess their situation. How had they allowed themselves to fall asleep on the job? Where has their fellow guard gone? And how are they going to find a way out of this predicament without even fully understanding what is at stake?
Their debate in its own right might offer material for a light comedy of errors, but our three guardians simultaneously exist, sound asleep, in individual portraits painted by sixteenth-century German master Bernhard Strigel and currently housed in Munich. Meanwhile, in the present day, an anxious lecturer is afraid that his pending presentation about these paintings, and their relationship to a fourth portrait, now in the UK, that somehow became separated from them, is falling apart at the seams. As he and a friend review his arguments about the artistic and theological questions raised by the images—included as four full colour plates—the subjects of the paintings try to imagine a way to get themselves out of an awkward situation, as uninformed bit players at a profound moment in Christian history. As the text weaves its way back and forth between these two conversations, further questions about history, truth and faith arise in clever, unexpected ways.
And it all works like a charm.
The Tomb Guardians, the latest novel from the prolific music critic, writer and librettist, Paul Griffiths, is inventive, witty and wise. This short novel, so simple in its conception and yet so extraordinary in its execution, should be read, on its own, in one or two sessions, rather than slipped in among other reads. It is not difficult, but is best met without distraction so as to appreciate the full effect of the two interlaced dialogues that drive this singular text.
The lecturer works his way through his presentation, responding to his friend’s interruptions and encouragements, beginning with the artist’s depiction of ordinary sleeping figures—unique in his oeuvre and the art of his time—and moving on to consider the possible inspiration to illustrate guardians at all. Most widely known official accounts beyond the Gospel of Matthew make no mention of any watch being set. At the same time, the soldiers, their conversation set apart in italics, have very little understanding of the circumstances that led to this assignment. They try to sort out what they do know and craft potential explanations, from the mundane to the supernatural, to offer their superiors should they be discovered in dereliction of duty or decide to report to their camp. Not surprisingly, consensus is hard to come by:
Whoa, can we please discuss this a bit?
“As to the –”
Yes, we should be very careful what we say here.
“As to the soldiers sent to stand guard, Matthew indicates that they didn’t just drift off but were shocked into sleep by the appearance of the angel.”
We can’t just say we fell asleep. Anyone would say we should’ve been taking it in turns. Anyone would say that.
“Now how does Strigel deal with this? Observe this fellow here, seated on the ground, resting his head on his left palm, while his right arm dangles.”
Did we try taking it in turns? Did any of us suggest that?
“Look at him with his half-open mouth.”
We have to be very careful here, even in what we say just to each other, because you say something, and somebody else’ll remember it, and then little by little it becomes the truth, you know, it becomes the story, it becomes what we all of us remember, even if it never happened that way at all.
As the novel proceeds, the guardians’ musings range wider while the lecturer’s concerns begin to focus more on the likely intention behind the paintings’ commission, how they fit into the shifting religious politics of the Reformation and how one portrait came to be separated. The quoted passages from his presentation are framed within the comments and inquiries of his friend. Against the academic tone of his developing thesis, the guardians’ debate offers a critical and entertaining counterpoint. Speaking in anything but Biblical tones, they are as delightfully anachronistic as their Renaissance dress and weaponry. Together this dual-strand narrative forms a work that richly rewards return visits.
The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths is published by Henningham Family Press.