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What the Swedes Read: Pär Lagerkvist

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Pär Lagerkvist

Daniel Handler
13 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Pär Lagerkvist (Sweden, 1951)
  • BOOK READ: Barabbas, translated by Alan Blair

I’d never heard of Pär Lagerkvist before embarking on this project, but as I bummed around town with Barabbas, one of his most celebrated novels, two friends of mine said, “Oh, I read that.” That hadn’t happened with, say, books by Carl Spitteler or Harry Martinson. Though book and author had been completely unknown to me, others apparently were fully engaged with Lagerkvist and Barabbas, right under my nose.

It’s like Christianity in this way. Jews like myself can sometimes forget just what a big deal Christians are. Well, that’s not quite putting it right—we aren’t blind to the Pope, or Santa Claus, or other manifestations of the Gentile Juggernaut. But if you don’t grow up learning the basic precepts of Christianity, you end up knowing the trappings but not the theology of, in the West at least, the dominant culture. Even reading the New Testament won’t let the story of Christ sit in the brain the way it does in the Christian psyche. I’m someone who wishes I’d had more religion in my public schooling, if only so that, in college, when we were all studying Jonathan Edwards, I didn’t have to say, “OK, remind me. They roll the rock back, and…?”

That was my handicap with Barabbas, which derives its title from a minor character in the Christ story. At least, I think he’s minor. For those of you on equally weak footing, Barabbas is a thief, scheduled to be crucified along with you-know-whom, only to have his sentence lifted in a gimmicky vote by the gathered crowd. Though only briefly mentioned in the original texts, Barabbas has cast an enduring shadow across Christian culture, as far as I can tell. Some scholars propose Barabbas as one of the cornerstones of Christian anti-Semitism—although in my view anti-Semitism will take any old cornerstone lying around—while some have adopted him as a symbol of Christ bestowing grace even on those who deserve it least.

Barabbas tells the thief’s side of the story, and thus is something of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for a reader, in this case, who doesn’t know all that much about Hamlet. The book begins at the moment of crucifixion, with the freed thief watching Jesus’s last moments—I mean, you know, for now—and feeling that “there was something odd about him,” which sounds a bit like the part in a biopic where people have a funny feeling that the movie’s subject is really going to make a mark. There’s even a special effect, a sudden darkening of the sky, as the crucifixion draws to a close.

The rest of the brief novel chronicles Barabbas’s journey, mostly an internal one, following his release from punishment, and he’s not having a good time. He tries to go back to his usual haunts, but finds himself unable to laugh with the other broadly drawn ruffians, who find Barabbas silent and not much fun:

Come now, have a drink and cheer up! Aren’t you glad you’re out of it and sitting here enjoying yourself among friends instead of hanging rotting on a cross? Isn’t this better, eh? Aren’t you having a good time here, eh? Think of that, Barabbas? You’ve saved your bacon, you’re alive. You’re alive, Barabbas!

But Barabbas isn’t alive, really. He wanders the streets in silence. He beds a woman, moodily. He talks a little with a nameless beggar girl, identified only by her harelip, and increasingly finds himself drawn to the growing following for the man who was crucified instead of him. He seeks out these early Christians, but sneers at their message to love one another, a motto they can’t seem to follow themselves with much regularity.

Barabbas continues to waver between silent detachment from the world and a bitter, sometimes violent self-loathing. I’d label this state of mind “survivor’s guilt,” a psychological term rooted in subjects who made it through the Holocaust, but as the novel progressed I wondered if this idea was, well, not Christian enough for the text I was putting it on. Lagerkvist emphasizes the utter squalor of life in this era, how eager the filthy and violent world was for transformation, even if innocent girls with harelips struggled to understand it:

Nothing would be like anything one had seen or experienced before. Perhaps she too would be in other clothes, one never knew. White, possibly. Or perhaps in a blue skirt? Everything would be so different because the son of God was risen from the dead and the new age had dawned.

It’s difficult for me to parse that last sentence. Are we in the head of the girl, with the belief in a new world dawning as naive as her fantasies of a new dress? Or has a more authoritative voice stepped in, offering the fulfillment of the humblest dreams in Christ’s resurrection? Peeking into Lagerkvist’s biography doesn’t help—he appears to be one of those people who falls away from Christianity and then writes about it obsessively for years—and when the beggar girl’s life ends in meaningless suffering, Barabbas’s questions are again difficult to parse even as they are easy to fathom:

Now here she lay, battered and dead for his sake. The right one? Was he the right one? The saviour of the world? The saviour of all mankind? Then why didn’t he help her down there in the stoning-pit? Why did he let her be stoned for his sake? If he was a savior, why didn’t he save!

Even with a dubious exclamation point, this seems like a sensible line of questioning, but then again this is one of the barriers between Jewish and Christian thought: Jews think the world’s in a state because no savior has yet arrived, and Christians think the savior has already arrived and has done his bit but will come back—right? And in the meantime, despite receiving divine grace, the world’s in a state because…

OK, this is where I always get lost. Some years ago I tried to write a book with a Christian fundamentalist, and the project proved impossible largely because my questions about his culture were, by his cultural definition, indications that I wanted to convert. From his view, one could either love Christ or work toward loving Christ: those were the choices. It was a deep reminder of a genuine gap, one that couldn’t be bridged with research or reading but only through conversion, which I declined.

I feel this gap in Barabbas, and in some ways it’s the largest gap I’ve encountered on my Nobel ramble. The work of Wole Soyinka was foreign to me, but he wrote about a king, and I knew what a king was. I might not have been able to truly immerse myself in the colonialist views of Kipling, but I had some bearings in that situation. Pär Lagerkvist gives us a take on Barabbas in Barabbas, but without getting a grip on Barabbas it may be impossible to get a grip on Barabbas—though eventually this felt appropriate. Barabbas is a confused man, detached and unwelcome in a world growing loud with Christian enthusiasm, and, by the book’s close, this felt awfully familiar. 

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