Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review: ‘I want to believe’


When I think back to the time of Jesus, what usually comes to mind is Monty Python’s Life of Brian – a tale of a man who is mistaken for a prophet. Born the same time as Jesus, originally receiving the gifts that the Magi were to later bestow upon Jesus, being a cult sensation who is followed as he drops his shoe and his gourd, Brian runs around Nazareth during a time when preachers on the street were ten a penny, lepers don’t want to be cured (otherwise they’d have to get real jobs), and people were just fanatical to find a leader. Life of Brian is an alternate source of history that his completely brilliant as it rips apart humanity’s need for religion, order, and government.

Nobel Prize-winner Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is another alternate source of history which tells the story of the man set free instead of Jesus, Barabbas. The narrative begins as Barabbas watches Jesus get crucified, thinking how the Jews wanted him sent back to them even though he was the convicted criminal. He feels the earth quake when the man they call Saviour dies. And with that he returns back to his village where he’s greeted at first as a ghost, then as a welcome prodigal son. Except all of a sudden he notices certain people praying to this Saviour who is supposed to rise and free humanity. Barabbas himself goes to where they buried Jesus and gets to see the mystery of his return, which he later relates to fellow slaves/workers, getting them to believe further in Jesus. With all of this in mind though, Barabbas – when put to the test – can’t admit that he believes in the Saviour. A Roman guard queries him and the only other named character in the book, Sahak, whether they serve Caesar or Christos Iesus, Sahak strongly affirms his faith in God. Whereas Barabbas can’t say anything and shakes his head, destroying the relationship with Sahak (who later is crucified) but saving his life from Caesar.

The prose in this novella is sparse, perhaps as minimalist as it gets. The characters remain anonymous, spirits almost. It paints a portrait of Barabbas as a hurt man, a man searching for answers rather than a spiteful, villainous creature that most Biblical interpretations take. Most notably, I’m thinking of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, who creates Barabbas as a soulless Machiavellian creature who takes advantage of any man, woman, or child – who is in it for money and glory and nothing else.

And because of the brevity in length, the narrative’s echoes – of crucifixion, of characterisation, of theme, and of plot – are able to resonate strongly in the reader’s mind. Who we know to be Peter, who denies Jesus on the day of his crucifixion, is played out again when, as mentioned above, Barabbas can’t admit to believing that Christ is his Saviour. And this reverberates when Barabbas, in order to make up for this lack of faith, hallucinates and sees Christians burning Rome decides to join them and torch the city for his god, believing that this act will make up for his misconduct earlier. (It only gets him a sentence of his own crucifixion, which is where the narrative ends.) In that, these mirroring devices, the novel is haunting and wonderfully subtle.
Barabbas is certainly an interesting tale of one of the extenuating stories of Jesus, an apt one that perhaps fits our time – where there is such a schism between religion and science, belief and high culture – that it’s interesting to see someone trying to pull it all together.


Elena said…

This looks like an interesting book! Reminds me a bit of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Also you have reminded me that I'm due another watching of Life of Brian 😛

J.T. Oldfield said…

This sounds really good. I think I'll keep an eye out for it!

Salvatore said…

I still need to read 'The Master and Margarita'. Unfortunately it's been on my reading queue for about a year now.

It was an interesting, subtle book. I wouldn't say that it's particularly thrilling, but it certainly had a soft rhythm and some interesting dichotomies that make it worth a read.

Kari said…

Sal – Your description in the last paragraph of that comment reminds me of The Red Tent.

Salvatore said…

Embarassingly I had to look up what The Red Tent was about, especially since I had to sell rights to some of her books (not that one though, phew). Sounds interesting, like a Margaret Atwood take on whatever she's interested in at the moment. I'm assuming you've read that one, right? Is it worth a go? I feel like Diamant may be a bit too commercial for my tastes.

Kari said…

Ha, Sal…"too commercial." The Red Tent wasn't my cup of tea. Like you described, it's not particularly thrilling. You don't need to read it.

I've only read one Atwood book and bleh. We've had this discussion.