Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist
There's been a number of works that treat Judas, usually perceived as a villain of the Bible, as a sympathetic figure, if not a hero. What about someone like Barabbas, who's almost universally treated with scorn? Not to mention there's little about him in the actual Bible.
Most of what I've read of Barabbas says he was probably some kind of revolutionary. Someone who was arrested for rebelling against Roman occupation. One would think this would earn him some sympathy. This novel by Lagerkvist seems to be the only fictional work that attempts to try to examine the character of Barabbas closely.
It begins with Barabbas watching Jesus being crucified after he's been acquitted. He finds himself confused and fascinated by this seemingly pathetic man who died in his place. He begins to mingle among the man's followers to try to find out exactly who this prophet was and what he taught. Even when he learns of Jesus' message, he wants to believe it, but can't bring himself to.
This is an excellent and well-written novel about one of the least examined Biblical figures. The descriptions of his struggles against Rome, his turbulent personal life, and his spiritual conflict are engaging and thought provoking. If you have any interest at all in the story of Jesus, I highly recommend this novel.
Buy Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist here.
The Listener by Taylor Caldwell
I picked this up because an author whose work I enjoy mentioned Caldwell in an interview. It probably wasn't the best place to start with her.
The plot is about a small chapel where people can go talk to a mysterious figure known as The Man Who Listens. Each chapter is about a different person going to the chapel to vent their problems.
It's not a bad setup and many of the chapters use it to a good effect. They create short and tight character sketches. The best ones give a unique voice that feels authentic to the character.
The problem is that some of the chapters fall into simply preaching. The theme of being ill at ease with the modern world runs through the whole book, but rather than letting some of the characters convey this from a personal standpoint, it just reads like Caldwell putting an essay in their mouth. There's also the fact that all of the chapters have the problems solved way too quickly and easily.
The biggest problem is the final chapter. It reveals who The Man Who Listens is and, good god, does it not work. It's obvious the Man is Jesus from the beginning, but revealing what's actually behind the curtain where the mysterious figure is really ruins the book. Also, the final chapter involves a scientist confessing a discovery he's made, and it results in a very out of place science fiction bend. Holy hell, this last chapter just does not work on any level.
I don't recommend this book at all. However, the good parts of the book were good enough that I am going to read some of Caldwell's other work. Dear and Glorious Physician seems to be her most highly regarded, so I'll probably try that in the near future.
Buy The Listener by Taylor Caldwell here.
I am surprised that anyone still reads Taylor Caldwell in this century – an author that went out of fashion as quickly as she went into fashion. Perhaps her best book might be “The Devil's Advocate” (1952), a dystopia set in an America turned Communist. The prose is a bit cumbersome by modern standards, but the story of a totalitarian democracy is as current as ever.
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