Due to my catastrophic lack of knowledge of Biblical studies and Biblical history, I’m not qualified to say much about how this novel plays against the Biblical story on which it is based. Or how accurately it portrays the Biblical times in which it is set. It is one of the strengths of this book that it is very Biblical, but my own lack of Biblical background doesn’t much mar my appreciation of it. It springboards off the Biblical story of Barabbas, a prisoner who had been convicted to a death sentence, but was then acquitted in order to free up a crucifix for Jesus of Nazareth. (I think the book’s account of how this happens differs from the Biblical account, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss.) Barabbas first sees Jesus briefly when he is freed, and then he sees Jesus die on the cross. For a moment, as Jesus dies, Barabbas sees a darkness descend.
Afterward, for the rest of his life, Barabbas struggles with his relationship to this man Jesus and the strange religion that he left behind. It is, to my mind, a drama of agnosticism. Agnosticism would seem to be a difficult topic to dramatize, but the circumstances of Barabbas’ life make it vivid. He saw the darkness as Jesus died, but no other miracles, so he is doubtful of Jesus’ divinity. The circumstances of his life have been cruel, so Jesus’ message (distilled in the novel as “love one another”) is puzzling to him. He’s drawn to Jesus’ message and his followers, but can never quite understand or embrace them. And he lives in a time when the difference between wanting to believe and actually believing matters a great deal — in the course of the novel Barabbas watches as two different followers of Jesus who Barabbas has grown close with are martyred for their belief. Barabbas, because he does not believe, lives, but with guilt.
The novel is short and written in starkly simple language, but it raises a great number of complicated questions and troubling feelings. You should read it.
It contains things like this:
–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.
Barabbas was published in 1950. Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.