Monday, June 27, 2016

Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist

Searching for a reason to believe
Barabbas, a novel by Swedish author Pär Lagerkvist, was published in 1950. The following year Lagerkvist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, due in no small part to the critical acclaim this book received. The novel is based on the biblical story of Barabbas, who is briefly mentioned in each of the four Gospels. In the time of Christ, it was customary to pardon one prisoner during the holiday of Passover. The Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, gives the people of Jerusalem the choice of whom to set free. They choose Barabbas, a convicted thief and murderer, leaving Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.

Lagerkvist’s novel begins with the crucifixion of Christ. Barabbas, a free man, witnesses the event, and can hardly believe his good fortune at having escaped the fate of the man who is dying before him. He knows little about Christ or his teachings, but he finds the man strangely fascinating. Barabbas is tormented by the nagging thought that he should have been the one to die. He undergoes a drastic personality change, no longer enjoying wine, women, and theft as he used to. He seeks out information on Christ, and makes attempts to learn about the Christian faith, but he is not welcomed among the Christians. In many ways Barabbas is incapable of faith or religion. This is not a simple repentant-man-turns-over-a-new-leaf story, but something far more complex.

Having seen the 1961 film adaptation starring Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance, I approached the novel with some pre-conceived notions. Overall, the film is faithful to the general tone and message of the book, but it augments Barabbas’s interior conflict with sword-and-sandal action scenes designed to entertain. In the movie, Barabbas is trained to be a gladiator, but nothing like that occurs in the book. The Jack Palance character doesn’t even exist in Lagerkvist’s novel, and he wouldn’t really belong in it. If adapted for film today, Barabbas would be an introspective art-house indie film rather than an epic blockbuster.

What makes the novel so powerful is the fact that it can be appreciated from either a religious or secular perspective. Devout Christians will likely gravitate toward the novel’s examination of faith and find meaning in its underlying morality. Irreligious readers, however, can approach the book as a historical novel. Lagerkvist’s Jerusalem of two millennia ago is a free market of competing gods and prophets. Everyone is looking for something or someone to believe in and a sense of belonging. Rumors of Christ’s divinity and news of his death spread not like wildfire but in fits and starts, through second-hand testimony and overheard whispering in the streets. This is a far cry from the glorified depictions of early Christianity in romantic novels like Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur or Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Lagerkvist doesn’t even take a stand on whether Christ was the divine son of God or just a wise philosopher punished for his revolutionary teachings. He leaves that for the reader to decide, and chooses instead to focus on the faith of the followers. Despite its biblical setting, Barabbas is a modernist, psychological novel that explores the sort of existential themes one might find in a work by Albert Camus. Barabbas’s quest can be seen as analogous to modern man searching for meaning in an empty life.

Barabbas is a brief book that can probably be read in its entirety in under two hours. Nevertheless, it is a great work of literature, filled with stark, moving scenes that will likely stick with this reader for a long time to come.
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