Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas
February 2, 2011
Swedish poet and writer Par Fabian Lagerkvist’s novel Barabbas was published in 1950. The next year, Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize, “for the artistic vigour and true independence of mind with which he endeavours in his poetry to find answers to the eternal questions confronting mankind”. (If you’ve never visited the fascinating Nobel Prize website, go there now.)
Barabbas is the acquitted– the criminal Pilate set free at Golgotha instead of Jesus. An unbeliever who wants to believe (or “a believer without faith,”) Barabbas sees Jesus and another condemned man crucified, and lives the rest of his life with this memory.
Lagerkvist gives us the grass blades on the bloody hill, the beer Barabbas drinks with his friends when he has returned from the brink of death, his spine’s cold sweat when wandering the catacombs of Rome in the middle of night. He gives us the stars above Israel two thousand years ago, and the woman with the cleft palate who lies down beneath them among lepers and outcasts. He gives us the first Christians, suspected and suspicious in the wake of the crucifixion.
This is not an easy read. There is no padding, no footholds up the sheer rock face. I did not like it until about halfway in, and then I was not sure what it was I liked. Perhaps just the questions themselves:
“The saviour of the world? The saviour of all mankind? Then why didn’t he help her down in the stoning-pit? Why did he let her be stoned for his sake? If he was a saviour, why didn’t he save?”
For though Barabbas is not crucified, though he is spared death not once but three times in this account, he does have a cross to bear. He watches three senseless, painful deaths, of those condemned for their belief in Love. He watches as one who is unable to understand, unable though willing to believe, who is hated and feared, who gropes toward an experience of love. He fears death but finds life hellish. Without faith or hope, he lives a life bereft of meaning or relief.
This is arguably the thesis of modernist literature, and of Lagerkvist’s body of work itself, described variously as:
“…the clash between his grandparents’ faith and the modern world’s doubts…”
“… the meaning of life in a world without God…”
“… in a world where the Divine is no longer present, no longer speaking…”
This last phrase in particular struck me, first for its huge logical leap, second for its similarity to the current tagline of the United Church of Christ: God is still speaking.
But for Lagerkvist, and for so many people alive in 1951, the violence of WWII brought a heavy weight to bear on an already weakened will for faith. How could God possibly be speaking now? How could God– how could a savior– allow such suffering and inhumanity? Surely this was an abandoned world.
I’m not sure any of these questions have left us, but neither am I sure they weren’t with us from the beginning.
“Supposing he really were the only god? That it were to him one should pray and none other? Supposing there were only one mighty god who was master of heaven and earth and who proclaimed his teaching everywhere, even down here in the underworld? A teaching so remarkable that one could not grasp it? “Love one another… love one another.”… No, who could understand that…?”
Barabbas is an anti-hero. We are not supposed to like him, much less love him. Lagerkvist takes the tiniest of contested Biblical biographical scraps– he was a criminal, a native of the Jerusalem hills, a Roman slave– and creates a back story in which Barabbas is orphaned at birth, “born hated,” essentially doomed from the beginning:
“Had he not been of such good tough material he would never have survived. He had Eliahu and the Moabite woman to thank for this; they had once again given him life. And this despite their both having hated, not loved, him. Nor had they loved each other. That is how much love means. But he knew nothing of what he owed them and their malevolent embrace.”
His interest in the faithful (most notably Peter, of the remarkable eyes, recognizable even in toothless old age) does not fan out into longing, until a small flame is kindled when he is shackled to another slave in the copper mines. This slave, Sahak, is a Christian who prays nightly. A previous, literate companion has carved the symbols for Christ’s name onto the back of the disk hanging about his neck. Slowly, secretively, Sahak carves the symbols onto Barabbas’ disk. When this is found out, the two are brought before the Roman governor. Sahak swears loyalty to Christ, and not to Rome. But Barabbas cannot claim the same.
–And you? Do you also believe in this loving god?
Barabbas made no reply.
–Tell me. Do you?
Barabbas shook his head.
–You don’t? Why do you bear his name on your disk then?
Barabbas was silent as before.
–Is he not your god? Isn’t that what the inscription means?
–I have no god, Barabbas answered at last, so softly that it could barely be heard. But Sahak and the Roman both heard it. And Sahak gave him a look so full of despair, pain and amazement at his incredible words that Barabbas felt it pass right through him, right into his inmost being, even though he did not meet the other’s eyes.
The Roman too was surprised.
–But I don’t understand, he said. Why then do you bear this “Christos Iesus” carved on your disk?
–Because I want to believe, Barabbas said, without looking up at either of them.
At Sahak’s death, the hills are spring-green and full of sunlight, “But there was nothing great or uplifting about Sahak’s death… It was all the more curious, therefore, that Barabbas could be so moved by it. But he was… it was remarkable that Barabbas could feel as he did, but he had been shackled together with him for so long. He thought he still was, for that matter, that he and the crucified man were united again with their iron chain…. when he realized [that Sahak was dead] he gave a gasp and sank down on his knees as though in prayer.”
This “as though” is the existential shackle that trips and enslaves him throughout the novel. He is always held back from the brink of belief. Paradoxically, this hovering on the brink of belief and prayer means he is plunged into darkness and fear.
That night he dreamt that he was shackled to a slave who lay beside him praying, but whom he could not see.
What are you praying for? he asked him. What is the use?
I am praying for you, the slave answered out of the darkness in a well-known voice.
Then he lay quite still so as not to disturb the praying man and felt his old eyes filling with tears. But when he awoke and fumbled about on the floor for the chain, it was not there, nor the slave either. He was not bound together with anyone. Not with anyone at all in the whole world.
This is an excruciating novel. Its haunting message is hard-wrung from the dry, stone-like language. Lagerkvist’s cosmology slips through a few cracks in the novel; otherwise, the reader is left alone with the loneliness of Barabbas.
For me, hope makes itself known in two ways, perhaps in spite of Lagerkvist’s intentions. First, that we find love for Barabbas and for his questions; and second, that Barabbas perhaps finds an approximation of love in being bound to Sahak. This image– the two slaves bound together in the copper mind– is itself a painful etching of Compassion, com + passion, “to suffer together.”