From the Thirst by Amélie Nothomb: I always knew I would be sentenced to death

In her twenty-eighth novel in as many years, Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb takes on a story for the ages: the life of Jesus.
April '21

Thirst. In a first-person voice as wry as it is wise, Nothomb narrates Jesus’s final days, from his trial to his crucifixion to the resurrection. Amid asides about his relationships with his mother and Judas, his love for Mary Magdalene, and his many miracles, we find a man struggling with his humanity and his exceptional nature, straddling the line between human and deity, the son of a formless, omnipotent creator in the fallible form of a man.

Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to Belgian parents in 1967. She lives in Paris. Since her debut on the French literary scene a little more than a decade ago, she has published a novel a year, every year. Her edgy fiction, unconventional thinking, and public persona have combined to transform her into a worldwide literary sensation. She is the recipient of the French Academy’s 1999 Grand Prix for the Novel, the René-Fallet, Alain-Fournier, and Jean-Giono prizes.

I always knew I would be sentenced to death. The advantage of such knowledge is that I can focus my attention where it is warranted: on the details.

I thought my trial would be a parody of justice. And indeed, it was, but not in the way I expected. I had imagined a hastily expedited formality, but I was given the works. The prosecutor left nothing to chance.

The witnesses for the prosecution paraded past, one after the other. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the newlyweds from Cana, the first beneficiaries of my miracle working.

“This man has the power to change water into wine,” declared the husband, deadly serious. “And yet, he waited until the end of the wedding to exercise his talent. He enjoyed seeing how anxious and humiliated we were, when he could so easily have prevented it. Because of him, we served the good wine after the inferior one. We were the laughingstock of the village.”

I calmly looked my accuser in the eye. He held my gaze, confident in his reasoning.

The royal official stepped up to describe the ill will with which I had cured his son.

“And how is the child doing now?” my lawyer, the most inefficient office clerk you could possibly imagine, could not help but ask. “He is fine. To his credit! With magic like his, a single word suffices.”

All thirty-seven miracle recipients took a turn airing their dirty laundry. I found the once-possessed man of Capernaum to be the most entertaining:

“Since the exorcism, my life has been incredibly boring!” The erstwhile blind man complained of how ugly the world was, the former leper declared that no one gave him alms anymore, the fishermen’s union from Tiberias accused me of having favored one crew over all the others, and Lazarus described how horrible it was to live with the smell of a corpse clinging to his skin.

From the looks of it, it had not been necessary to bribe them or even encourage them. They all came to testify against me of their own free will. Several of them said what a relief it was to be able to vent their frustration in the presence of the culprit at last.

In the presence of the culprit.

I only appear calm to people. It took a supreme effort on my part to listen to all these litanies without reacting. Every time, I looked the witness in the eye with no other expression than gentle astonishment. Every time, they held my gaze with disdain, defying me, looking at me with scorn.

The mother of a child Ed healed went so far as to accuse me of having ruined her life.

“When my little boy was unwell, he was quiet. Now he wiggles and screams and cries, I don’t get a moment’s peace, and not a wink of sleep at night.”

“But did you not ask my client to cure your son?” the office clerk asked.

“To cure him, yes, not to make him as maddening as he was before he got ill.”

“Perhaps you should have made that clear.”

“Is he omniscient, or isn’t he?”

A good question. I always know Ti, and never Ilcbs. I know

the direct object but never the adverbial phrase. Therefore, no, I am not omniscient: I discover the adverbs as I go along, and they throw me for a loop. People are right to say the devil is in the details.

In truth, not only did they need no encouragement from the prosecution to testify, they also ardently desired to. Their readiness to speak against me was staggering. All the more in that it was strictly unnecessary. They all knew I would be sentenced to death.

There is nothing mysterious about prophecy. They knew my powers and could see for themselves that I had not used them to save myself. They were in no doubt, therefore, as to the outcome of the matter.

Why were they so eager to inflict such pointless censure upon me? The enigma of evil is nothing in comparison to that of mediocrity. As they were testifying, I could tell how much they were enjoying it. They delighted in behaving wretchedly in front of me. They were simply disappointed that my suffering wasn’t more visible. Not that I wanted to deny them that supreme pleasure, but my astonishment far outweighed my indignation.

I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me. And yet, I cannot understand what came over them as they were ranting and raving such abominations. I consider my incomprehension to be a failure, a sign of neglect.

Pontius Pilate had received his instructions about me, and I could see how put out he was—not that he liked me in any way, but because the witnesses irritated the rational man in him. My stupefaction deceived him; he sought to give me an opportunity to protest against the unending stream of nonsense:

“Defendant, do you have anything to say?” he asked, his expression that of an intelligent being addressing his peer.

“No,” I replied.

He nodded, as if to imply it was pointless to throw a line to someone who was that unconcerned by his own fate.

In truth, I said nothing because I had too much to say. Had I spoken, I would not have been able to hide my scorn. Feeling scorn is a torment to me. I have been a man for long enough to know that some feelings cannot be repressed. What matters is letting them go by without trying to counter them: that way they leave no trace.

Scorn is a sleeping devil. A devil that fails to act will soon begin to fade. In the courtroom, words are as good as actions. Keeping my scorn silent was as good as preventing it from acting.

Pilate turned to his counselors:

“The proof that these testimonies are false is that our man has not resorted to magic to set himself free.”

“And it is not on those grounds that we call for his conviction.”

“I know. I want nothing more than to convict him. The only thing is that I would have preferred not to feel as if I am doing so for fraudulent reasons! ”

“In Rome, people require bread and circuses. Here they require bread and miracles.”

“So be it. If it’s political, then it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Pilate stood up and declared, “Defendant, you shall be crucified.”

I appreciated his frugal language. The genius of Latin is that it never uses more words than are necessary. I would have hated it if he had said, “You shall be crucified to death.” When it comes to crucifixion there is no other outcome.

The fact remains that, coming from his lips, it had the desired effect. I looked at the witnesses, and I could sense how embarrassed they felt, albeit too late. And yet, they had

all known I would be convicted, and they had gone so far as to actively contribute to my sentence. Now they were pretending to find that sentence excessive and to be shocked by the barbarity of the procedure. Some of them even tried to catch my gaze in order to dissociate themselves from what would ensue. I looked away.

I did not know that I would die like this. It was not an easy thing to accept. I thought about the pain, for a start. My mind shied away: it is impossible to comprehend such suffering.

Crucifixion is reserved for the most heinous crimes. I did not expect such humiliation. But that is what they had asked of Pilate. It was pointless wasting my time in conjectures: Pilate had not objected. He had to condemn me to death, but he could have opted for beheading, for example. At what point did I rub him the wrong way? Probably when I would not disown my miracle working.

I could not lie: those miracles truly were my handiwork. And contrary to what the witnesses had attested, those miracles required an unbelievable effort on my part. No one had ever taught me the art of accomplishing them.

And then I had a strange thought: at least this torture that awaited me would not require any miracles on my part. All I had to do was let myself go.

“Will he be crucified today?” someone asked.

Pilate considered the question and looked at me. He must have seen that something was missing, because he replied:

“No. Tomorrow.”

When I was once again alone in my cell, I knew what he wanted me to feel: fear.


Pilate was right. Until that night, I had never really known what fear was. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before my arrest, it was sorrow and dereliction that had caused my tears.

Now, I was discovering fear. Not the fear of death, that most common of abstract notions, but the fear of crucifixion: a very concrete fear.

I have the unerring conviction that I am the most incarnate of human beings. When I lie down to go to sleep, the mere abandonment of it procures such pleasure that I have to stop myself from moaning. Eating the humblest gruel, drinking even standing water would cause me to sigh with delight if I did not keep myself strictly in line. More than once, I have wept with bliss on breathing in the morning air.

And the opposite is also true: the most benign toothache can cause abnormal torment. I recall cursing my fate over a splinter. I hide this sensitive nature as carefully as the previous one: it does not tally with what I am supposed to represent. Yet another misunderstanding.

In my thirty-three years here on earth, I have had time to notice it: my father s greatest success has been incarnation. That a disincarnate power could come up with the idea of inventing the body remains a masterful stroke of genius. Is it any surprise the creator was overwhelmed by his creation, the impact of which he could not foresee?

I’d like to say that this is why he created me, but it would not be true.

It would have been a good reason.

Humans complain, rightfully, of the imperfections of the body. The explanation is obvious: what would a house be worth if it were designed by a homeless architect? We only excel at things we practice daily. My father never had a body. For an ignorant sort, I think he did a remarkably good job.

My fear that night was a physical dizziness at the thought of what I would have to go through. Those who are tortured are expected to rise to the occasion. When they do not scream with pain, we say how brave they are. I suspect it is something else: I will find out what it is.

I feared the nails through my hands and feet. That was stupid: there would surely be greater pain. But that one I could imagine at least.

The jailer said to me:

“Try to get some sleep. You need to be in good shape tomorrow.”

On seeing my ironic expression, he added:

“Don’t laugh. It takes good health to die. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

And that is true. In addition, this was my last opportunity to sleep, and I do so like sleep. I did try, I lay down on the floor, I surrendered my body to rest: it wanted nothing to do with me. Whenever I closed my eyes, instead of finding sleep, I came upon terrifying images.

And so, I did what everyone does: to fight off the unbearable thoughts, I turned to other ones.

I relived my first miracle, my favorite. I realized, to my relief, that the newlyweds’ appalling testimony had not tarnished this memory.

It had not, however, gotten off to a very good start. Going to a wedding with one’s mother is a trying experience. My

mother may well be pure of soul, but she nevertheless remains a normal woman. She kept looking at me out of the corner of her eye as if to say, well, my son, what are you waiting for to find yourself a bride? I pretended not to notice.

I must confess I do not much like weddings. I cannot really work out why. It’s the sort of sacrament that fills me with anxiety, something I understand all the less as it does not concern me. I will not be getting married and do not regret it.

It was an ordinary wedding: a celebration where people displayed more joy than they really felt. I knew they were expecting something more from me. What could it be? I had no idea.

A distinguished meal: bread and grilled fish, wine. The wine was not great, but the bread came warm from the oven, with a lovely crust, and the fish was salted to perfection and filled me with delight. I concentrated on my food so I could enjoy all of the flavor and texture. My mother seemed embarrassed that I was not talking with the other guests. In this respect, I resemble her: shes not very talkative. Making small talk is something I cannot do, and neither can she.

My feelings for the bride and groom were those of amiable indifference, of the sort one feels for the friends of ones parents. It must have been the third time I had met them, and, as always, they exaggerated, “We knew Jesus when he was a little boy,” and, “You look different with a beard.” The excessive familiarity of humans makes me feel slightly ill at ease. I wish I had never seen those newlyweds. Our relationship would have been more authentic.

I missed Joseph. That good man, who was hardly more talkative than my mother or me, excelled at playing the part: he listened so carefully that you thought you could hear his reply. I did not inherit that virtue. When people are making small talk, I don’t even pretend to listen.

“What are you thinking about?” my mother murmured.

“Joseph.” ‘

“Why do you call him that?”

“You know why.”

I was never sure she really did know why, but if you have to explain that sort of thing to your mother, you’ll never see the end of it.

There was a sudden commotion.

“They’re out of wine,” said my mother.

I couldn’t see the problem. No more of that plonk, and so what! Cool water was better at quenching one’s thirst, so I went on eating conscientiously. It took me a moment to grasp that, to this family, a lack of wine was a source of irredeemable dishonor.

“They are out of wine,” my mother said again, pointedly.

An abyss opened at my feet. What a strange woman my mother is! She wants me to be normal, but at the same time I’m meant to work miracles!

How alone I felt at that moment. But I couldn’t put it off any longer. Then I had a flash of intuition. I said:

“Fetch two pitchers of water.”

The master of the house gave orders, I must be obeyed, and a great silence fell over the gathering. If I stopped to think, all would be lost. What was required was the opposite of thought. I obliterated myself. I knew that just beneath my skin there lay power, and that to get there, thought must be abolished. I yielded the floor to what, from that moment on, I would refer to as the husk, and I do not know what happened. For an insurmountable lapse of time, I ceased to exist.

When I came to, the guests were ecstatic:

“This is the best wine we’ve ever drunk in all the land!”

Everyone was tasting the new wine; their faces wore the sort of expression expected of them during religious ceremonies. I repressed a colossal desire to burst out laughing.

And so, my father had deemed it fit for me to discover this power during a shortage of wine. What a sense of humor! And how could anyone disapprove? What could be more important than wine? I had been a man long enough to know that joy is not a given, and that very good wine is often the only way to find it.

The wedding was flowing with good cheer. The newlyweds looked happy at last. The urge to dance came over them, and the spirit of the wine left no one untouched.

“One must not serve the best wine after the inferior one! ” people remarked to their hosts.

I can attest that it was not said in a critical way. Moreover, this assertion is quite open to debate. I believe the contrary. It is better to begin with an ordinary wine in order to instill joy in people s hearts. For it is when people are as joyful as they can be that they are capable of welcoming a great wine and giving it the supreme attention it deserves.

That is my favorite miracle. It was not hard to choose—it’s the only miracle I like. I had just discovered the husk, and I was dazzled. The first time you do something that is so far beyond you, you immediately forget the disproportionate effort it took, and remember only the wonder of the result.

And besides, the issue was wine at a feast. Later on, things took a turn for the worse—at stake were matters of suffering, illness, death, or catching poor fish I would have rather left alive and free. Above all, knowingly resorting to the power of the husk has turned out to be a thousand times harder than its discovery.

The worst thing is people s expectations. No one in Cana, apart from my mother, required anything of me. Later, wherever I went, they had seen me coming, they’d left a leper or an invalid in my path. When I accomplished a miracle, it was no longer a gift of grace, but the fulfillment of my duty.

How many times did I read in the gaze of a dying person or someone holding out his stump to me, not an entreaty, but a threat! If they had dared to formulate their thought, it would have been, “You’ve become famous with your nonsense, now you’d better take responsibility for it, otherwise, just you wait and see!” There were times when I did not accomplish the miracle they’d asked for because I didn’t have the strength to obliterate myself and release the power of the husk: how they hated me for it!

Later on, I gave it some thought, and I did not approve of my wondrous feats. They gave the wrong impression, this was not what I had to come to deliver; love was no longer free, it had to serve a purpose. Not to mention what I discovered this morning, during the trial: none of those who had benefited from my miracles felt the slightest gratitude. On the contrary, they reproached me bitterly for those miracles, even the bride and groom from Cana.

I don’t want to remember any of that. All I want to remember is the joy at Cana, the innocence of our happiness, drinking that wine that had come out of nowhere, the purity of our initial intoxication. Such intoxication is only worth it if it’s shared. That evening at Cana, we were all drunk and in the best way. Yes, my mother was tipsy, and it suited her. Since Joseph’s death, I had rarely seen her look happy. My mother was dancing, I danced with her, my dear old mama I love so well. My drunkenness told her that I loved her, and I could sense her response, even though she said nothing, my son, I know there is something special about you, I suspect someday it will it pose a problem, but for the time being I’m just proud of you and happy to be drinking this good wine you made for us with your magic.

And that night, I truly was drunk, and my drunkenness was holy. Before the incarnation, I did not weigh anything. The paradox is that in order to experience lightness you must

weigh something. Inebriation frees you from weight and gives you the impression you are about to take flight. Our spirit does not fly, it moves unhindered, and thats very different. Birds have a body; their flight is nothing less than conquest. I can never repeat it often enough: having a body is the best thing there is.

I expect that I will think just the opposite tomorrow, when my body is being tortured. And yet, for all that, can I disown the discoveries it has given me? The greatest joys of my life are those I have known through my body. And must I point out that my soul and spirit played an important part as well?

The miracles, too, I obtained through my body. What I call the husk is physical. To have access to it presupposes the temporary obliteration of the spirit. I have never been any other man than myself, but I am deeply convinced that every one of us has this power. The reason it is so rarely put to use is that it’s very difficult to access. One must have the strength and the courage to elude the spirit, and that is not a metaphor. A few human beings managed to do this before me, and a few human beings will manage after me.

My knowledge of time does not differ from my knowledge of my fate: I know Τι, but I know nothing of Πώς.

Names belong to Πώς, and so I don’t know the name of a writer in the future who will say, “The most profound thing in man is his skin.” He will come close to a revelation, but in any case, even those who glorify him will not understand the concrete nature of his words.

It’s not exactly the skin, it’s just beneath. Therein lies omnipotence. ✪


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