Martin Vopěnka’s novel: My Brother the Messiah
translated by Anna Bryson Gustova, London: Barbican Press, 2021.
By Ruben van Wingerden, lecturer and researcher New Testament at Tilburg School of Catholic Theology
The Czech writer Martin Vopěnka is relatively unknown outside the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, his novels are worth reading. One of these is particularly of interest regarding the topic of climate change and religious language. It concerns My Brother the Messiah, initially written in 2017 and published in English in 2021.
Why is this story interesting? The story of this novel takes place in the late twenty-first throughout the twenty-second century. During the twenty-first century, the Earth has been drying up more and more, and in 2096, scientists launched chemicals into the Earth’s atmosphere to fend off the sun’s rays. It works, and when Eli, Marek’s brother, is born on the outskirts of Prague (Czech Republic), the birth is accompanied by the first rain. However, the scientific project goes wrong, and the Earth starts to cool down, with massive consequences for Earth’s population. Only Mediterranean Europe, Africa and Australia are habitable places – we hear nothing in the Americas and Asia. Massive migration takes place, and civilizations start to collapse.
Eli the Messiah?
In this dark picture, Eli is a strange human. He seems very old in spirit and soon gains many followers. In the book, we look through the eyes of his brother Marek, who has witnessed his brother’s birth and strange growth to adulthood and remained with him throughout the time Eli was active. Marek is old and looks back. At thirty years old, Eli is murdered in Dubrovnik (Croatia), mainly because he preaches a new way of life.
The book’s primary focus is the question: is he the new Messiah? Marek agrees, as do many followers. The world is curious about Eli because, at one time, a short while before his death, he prophesied that children would stop being born. And the prophecy becomes a reality. In the last years of Marek’s life, only one in five receives children, while in the communities Marek founded after Eli’s death, children are born normally. This feature also has a major impact on society. The reason for this remains unknown, although throughout the book, there are hints that nature strikes back.
An Old or New Religion?
The book is actually about love and what remains if one is deprived of it, but underneath, there is another theme: religion. Eli’s position as Messiah receives plenty of attention, and interestingly, characters in the book compare him to Jesus. There are some likenesses: a birth with a miraculous context, a charismatic man who acquires followers, many disputes with adversaries, one who goes willingly to his death, and post-mortem appearances. However, there are many differences, too. Within the narrative, many are described. Eli is no miracle worker; he gropes in the dark about God’s plans for the Earth and her population. His teaching is vague and he himself seems a defeatist: he envisions a dark and grim future for the Earth and no future for himself. Several topics are not mentioned, such as apocalypticism, teaching or a vision of God’s future, e.g., the Kingdom of God.
At one point, Eli’s brother Marek is questioned by a Professor of Religion and a Monk (from some Orthodox Church). The questions they fire at him are quite simple and unsophisticated. As a theologian and a New Testament researcher, I was pretty disappointed with Vopěnka’s attention to the relationship between Jesus (as described in the New Testament) and Eli. It seems to me quite a flaw in his story to assume that many will recklessly acknowledge someone as a new Messiah without asking questions about the relationship with the one preached by Christians. This brings me, however, to another point.
Throughout the story, Jews play a role as well. In Vopěnka’s story, they vehemently search for a Messiah, and several Rabbis question Marek on whether his brother was the Messiah. With a DNA test, they try to retrieve information on whether he was a Jew, for then only he would count as a Messiah for the Jews. But alas, the test is negative, and the Rabbis leave the scene and the story altogether, quite abruptly. It seems the question of the Messiah plays a marginal role after all.
My Brother the Messiah is an interesting read, although the main story is not exclusively concerned with what I described above. The main story concerns Marek and his encounter with a much younger Natalia, who seems to revive his new sense of love and what it means to live in Marek, and who stirs the community and the view on Marek as keeper of Eli’s teachings.
It seems that Vopěnka has interwoven several huge and relevant issues of modern society in one book. However, upon finishing reading, I was rather disappointed by the shallowness of his enquiry into spirituality, particularly his exploration of new spiritual directions in conversation with existing religions. Eli’s followers easily integrated Eli as a Messiah into their worldviews without asking questions.
Moreover, the speeches incorporated in the book are not very spiritual; they lack particular vocabulary, which one would expect. A refrain in Eli’s words is: ‘It is better not to be born.’ This looks more like a depressed Gretha Thunberg who can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and says: ‘We will all die. Let’s be nice to each other until then.’
To end on a positive note, the book indeed shows how religion will never expire, and how extreme crises – caused by climate change and/or humankind’s idea of a solution and the disastrous consequences of that – can even cause the birth of new forms of religion/spirituality. And it is exciting that this is but one of many of the new science fiction novels which explore civilizations, religion, and climate change.