Thursday, 5 June 2008

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist (winner 1951)

It would appear, from my brief rifling through the Lagerkvist shelves at the library, that he carved out something of a niche for himself in historical fiction, particularly in interpretations of Biblical and other classical stories. In this respect, he put me in mind of Joseph Heller, who, when he was not writing a sublimely brilliant book about war, wrote very mediocre books based on tales from the Bible. The main differences between Heller’s Biblical reinterpretations and Lagerkvist’s Barabbas are: 1) that Heller writes mainly (if I remember arightly) for the sake of a rollicking good tale, whereas Lagerkvist wrestles with deep philosophical and religious issues and 2) that Barabbas is really quite good.

The first element to note in Barabbas is the element of surprise over the subject matter. Books reinterpreting the role of Judas are almost a cliché these days, but a fresh look at the role of Barabbas – a familiar character to any with passing knowledge of the New Testament, but after all, a character whose part is played out very quickly – is new to me, at any rate. As you read on, it dawns on you (judiciously helped to that end by the text): Barabbas is literally the man who Jesus died for, the man who was saved through his suffering.

As time passes on, Barabbas wrestles with this guilt, the scorn of others who recognize and reject him as ‘Barabbas the acquitted’ and slowly acquires faith only to reject it at every turn. Lagerkvist does not flesh out Barabbas’ life extensively, or write in the familiar vein of a historical novel, adding spice and colour to the sparse facts of historical record. What he invents, he invents to show Barabbas’ struggle with the effects of his experience – in the novel, Barabbas sees Jesus die and *possibly* be resurrected. He is clearly deeply affected by his experience, but Lagerkvist leaves the question of whether or not he witnessed a miracle, and ultimately whether or not he was converted to Christianity or merely shaken to the core by the fact of his acquittal and the unique message of the man who died in his place, more or less open.

I won’t summarize here the exact trajectory of Barabbas’ life or his spiritual position at the end of the novel, suffice it to say it’s moving but always human and relatable, I think whatever your personal faith. I admire Lagerkvist for showing not a man, a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, instantly converted by incontrovertible miracles, but a man never quite sure of what he saw, struggling with the same questions of faith that any believer, not themselves witness to these events, would experience. A thoughtful (and very short!) novel that I would recommend to Christians, atheists and undecideds alike.

PS If I’ve inadvertently made it sound unremittingly dull, it’s really not.

PPS A little gem in the foreword from M. André Gide: ‘The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated’. Lolz! Way to predict stuff André.

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