The novelist on the pressures of belonging to a literary dynasty and fiction in the post-truth era

The paper chase that led to Marcel Theroux’s sixth novel began with what he calls “the biggest lacuna in all literature”: the mystery of what Jesus was doing between the ages of 13 and 30. Various legends have proliferated in that gap, but it was while exploring the idea that early Christianity is inflected with Buddhism that Theroux happened upon one of history’s fascinating obscurities: the Russian journalist and spy Nicolas Notovitch, who claimed to have discovered the answer. In 1894 he published a bestselling book called The Unknown Life of Jesus, his “translation” of a record of Jesus’s travels through India studying with Hindus and Buddhists. Notovitch had found this ancient Tibetan text, he explained, at a monastery in Ladakh, where he was recovering from a broken leg.

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