Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist

This is a very slim volume. And the subject not exactly inspiring. I mean, who wants to read about the murderer who was pardoned in order that Jesus of Nazareth got to die in his place? We all know the story surely. After all, there’s not much to say about the robber and murderer, Barabbas.

However, Par Largerkvist manages to retell the tale in the simplest terms, with his fictional take on the fate of Barabbas written in such a way that one could believe it is all a true story. The novel is a spare tale, pared down to great effect.

Originally published in Sweden in 1950, it was published in the USA, by Random House Inc in 1951. Reprinted by Vintage Books in 1989, this book has become a classic. It’s been on the reading list of many an American university student since then, our book group host among them.

Lagerkvist was a poet and thinker, playwright and writer. Barabbas is a tale of morality. A parable. The characters show spiritual torment, questions about Man and his destiny are posed, and overall we are asked to ponder the meaning of this great drama.

The crisis of faith is the big question in this novel. There is faith (in this case a belief in God) and its opposite, doubt. Without faith in God (something to give our life meaning and direction) it can be difficult to know the difference between Right and Wrong. But a belief in God is difficult to prove.

Barabbas, on his way to be crucified, is aquitted: he is thereby condemned to godlessness. He then has a relationship with a poor disabled outcast. He shows signs of love and care – in spite of himself – when he buries her. But Barabbas soon resorts to his former life of murder and pillage.

Because of this he is caught; chained to another slave in a mine he learns that the name carved on his companion’s slave disc - Christos Iesus - is that of the man’s true master, his Saviour. Barabbas realises that this Saviour is the man who died in his place. He asks the slave to carve it on his disc. He says he wants to believe.

The slave is rescued by a sympathetic Roman and in turn saves Barabbas by insisting that his companion must accompany him. But, later, when this slave is asked (on pain of death) to denounce Jesus he refuses. But Barabbas does not support him: he denounces faith in Jesus. The slave is hanged. Because he does not support the slave, Barabbas is not condemned to die: he is saved again.

The character Barabbas never undergoes an illuminating conversion. The fact that he is a murderer - and the portrayal of him so believable - such a thing would not actually ring true. But Lagerkvist does have us thinking that Barabbas wanted to believe.

Barabbas does not believe, but neither does he disbelieve. Barabbas, in his own warped and misguided way, finishes up by doing all he can to help the Saviour when he rises again. Or does he just get the wrong end of the stick? You will have to decide for yourself: the book is a poser, the ending enigmatic.

So pack this book in your hand luggage: its a perfect size and length for holiday travel. It will add a little gravitas if you only have Aga Sagas or Chick Lit packed but if you're weighed down with fat biographies it may even seem like light relief!


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