s.penkevich's Reviews > Barabbas

Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist
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Apr 13, 12

bookshelves: nobel-prize-winners, religion, swedish
Recommended for: Those who question
Read from April 05 to 11, 2012

Was there any meaning in the life he lived? Not even that did he believe in. But this was something he knew nothing about. It was not for him to judge.

Despite the small size of this novel, it is a deep chasm of heavy thoughts and difficult questions. Barabbas, widely considered the masterpiece of the Swedish author and 1951 Nobel laureate Par Lagerkvist, is a parable of the dilemma of faith. Barabbas, acquitted for murder, goes on living while Jesus is crucified in his stead, and spends his life haunted by this single event. While he is ‘damned lucky’, emphasis on damned, to be alive, he cannot help but feel life is meaningless anyways and struggles to accept faith in this strange crucified man whom he hears so much about. Powerful and deeply moving, this novel offers a unique, detached perspective on religion and faith, as a parable that is as poignant today as it was back in the religious persecution days of ancient Rome while being able to reach a reader despite any personal religious beliefs.

Lagerkvist built a fruitful career around challenging morality and faith within his readers. His prose is simple and direct, wasting no time with verbose passages, and cuts right to the heart making every word count. This novel, weighing in at a mere 144 pages, is bursting beyond capacity with moral musings and feels more like a novel of epic proportions that a slim novella. He also manages to take a topic that is known for inducing strong, passionate opinions from both sides of the spectrum and writing about it in an objective, removed manner. For example, the opening chapter is the most chilling depiction of the crucifixion on Mouth Golgotha I have ever encountered. Barabbas stands and witnesses the scene with a cold indifference, not knowing anything about the man being crucified. Jesus is never named in the novel, being only referred to as the ‘dead man’ or ‘crucified man’, and it is strange to see him regarded in such an impersonal way, especially in a scene illustrating his violent death. In a way, this objective approach is necessary to fit the lead character, but also makes the ideas easier to swallow as they aren’t tainted by emotion or seeming too slanted either way. There are times when both Christians and atheists will feel he is on their side and other passages where they will find him seemingly aligned against them. I feel this novel can work regardless of a religious opinion, yet as always, one must keep an open mind and allow the novel to unfold. It goes some very dark and disturbing places, and readers should be cautioned that the ironic, enigmatic conclusion is not a light at the end of a tunnel. This novel will challenge all beliefs and portray the world as a cruel, indifferent place as we follow Barabbas on his journey.

The idea of faith is the pulse of this novel. While Barabbas wants so badly to believe, he cannot. He cannot grasp the meaning behind the doctrine to ‘love one another’, simple as it may be, for he has no notion of love. He witnesses many potent events, yet tries to find logical explanations for them. He also cannot grasp how if a man was God, why he would allow himself a slaves death, and furthermore, why he would allow his followers to suffer and be put to death as well. Lagerkvist lays out the foundation to the disbelief of a God found in many people, yet offers slight glimpses of counter arguments: ‘He had used his power in the most extraordinary way. Used it by not using it, as it were; allowed others to decide exactly as they liked; refrained from interfering and yet had got his own way all the same…’ (remind LOST fans of Jacob there?). This crisis of faith causes the world to seem an even more indifferent place than he originally thought, ‘He was not bound together with anyone. Not with anyone at all in the whole world,’ and Lagerkvist pours an ocean of lonesome imagery into later portions of the novel.

Seemingly every word and event is a metaphor of religion, allowing the novel to work on several levels. Barabbas was ‘born hated’ by parents who cared nothing for him, such as the mother who died in childbirth cursing the world and all in it. He is damned from the start, much like the idea of original sin. The accusers of those who are preaching the crucified mans doctrine are often blind or near blind. Pay attention to every detail, as there are many layers to this novel. The book also works as a critique of modern times. The Christians in the book are persecuted for their faith, but it is primarily because it preaches that the lowest of citizens will be set free and equals with all those above them. Without understanding what this means, the Romans want to squash this belief as they want to keep the lepers and beggars and other lower class folk oppressed. Lagerkvist is often critical of those with power, yet shows many of the leaders as decent people and that it is the system and standards that create the cruelty those beneath them suffer. It is interesting how religion and Roman government are juxtaposed in many scenes, often more so to highlight their similarities instead of their differences. Lagerkvist is quite critical of Christians at time, showing many of the staunch followers to be rather hypocritical. They preach love and acceptance, yet seem very exclusive and unwelcoming to people who don’t fit their mold, such as Barabbas and the girl with the hare-lip.

I had read this intending it to be a quick escape after finishing Joyce’s epic novel, yet found myself caught up in the burdenous queries posed by this novel. Lagerkvist has a gift of stirring such strong feelings with so few words. If you enjoy examining faith, this is the book for you. It is a trip through suffering, offering both hope, and crushing visions of the world and death as a meaningless void. I will certainly be returning to the novels of Lagerkvist soon, his simple prose styling and layered meanings are too marvelous to only read one of his books.
4/5

I hope I didn't raise anyones blood pressure with this review. Please know that I had no intentions of conveying any opinions regarding religion, either for or against, and was simply trying to review a book with a difficult message. Anything said in this review was with no desire to dispute, argue, or impose any beliefs, just to detail the literary merits of this wonderful novel by an author surely deserving of the Nobel recognition. I would be more than happy to dicuss such topics with any willing person, as I find the various forms of religion fascinating, but this review was intended to be written purely objectively. Sorry for the disclaimer, but this is a touchy subject with many.
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Reading Progress

04/07/2012 page 104
72.0% "Heavy thoughts for a tiny novel"

Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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knig I read 'The dwarf' a couple of years ago (the book wot won the prize) and it was amazing: will be interested to see how this one pans out.


s.penkevich Nice, I was actually looking for that book when I came across this one at a used bookstore. This one is amazing, but quite a bit of a dark ponderous book. I think it would work for anyone regardless of their religious opinions but anyone who is extreme to either side would hate it. It does a good job of exploring religion while keeping detatched from it, so i could see how someone would say it is either too religious or too atheistic (at least without knowing how it ends yet)


message 3: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/"

Oh nice, and with Anthony Quinn! I need to see this, the book was spectacular. A bit of a downer though, I'm following this up with something upbeat and funny. Have you seen the film? Any good?


message 5: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/"

Oh nice, and with Anthony Quinn! I need to see this, the book was spectacular. A bit of a downer though, I..."


I saw the beginning of it. I can't really tell you how it is overall though. But with Quinn in it, it's bound to be interesting, don't you think?


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/"

Oh nice, and with Anthony Quinn! I need to see this, the book was spectacular. A bit o..."


Good point. I've never not liked Quinn in anything. I should see if Netflix has it. I would highly recommend the book as well, it has a very unique perspective.


message 7: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/"

Oh nice, and with Anthony Quinn! I need to see this, the book was spec..."


I will put it on my wishlist. I want to read The Dwarf too.


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Richard wrote: "It has been made into a film too: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055774/"

Oh nice, and with Anthony Quinn! I need to see thi..."


Me too, I haven't run across a copy yet though so I'll have order it soon. We should have a Dwarf read together sometime. Lagerkvist was too good to only read just one of his novels.


message 9: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Sounds good. If I can get them!


s.penkevich Good luck! I stumbled upon this one by accident in a used bookstore as it was misshelved next to Nabokov


message 11: by Stephen (new)

Stephen What a wonderful review, Sir Penkevich. Thank you.


message 12: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie great review, s.penkevich


s.penkevich Thank you Stephen and Bonnie!


message 14: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) a little more "light reading" I see! nice review as per usual


s.penkevich (Jenn)ifer wrote: "a little more "light reading" I see! nice review as per usual"

Ha yeah, turned out not to be as light as I had hoped. Gracias!


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I have a friend on LibraryThing I call "Doctor Depresso" because he reads nothing bu four-hankies-and-a-pistol books. You cry and weep and gnash your teeth all the way through them, and at the end, the world has lost all joy and all colors are grey and the kindest thing to do is shoot yourself in the head so ending the suffering.

I think he's your dad.


message 17: by Steve (new)

Steve I think it would be interesting if there were local discussion groups that would be a lot like Sunday school in their choice of topics (morality and ethics, mostly), but less doctrinaire. It looks like this book would give plenty of grist for such a mill.

Your review does a great job of highlighting the issues and telling us what to expect vis a vis religious perspectives.

Sorry you didn't get to rest your Ulysses-filled brain, though. Maybe you can go with some Calvin and Hobbes next -- the comic strip, not the philosophers.


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "I have a friend on LibraryThing I call "Doctor Depresso" because he reads nothing bu four-hankies-and-a-pistol books. You cry and weep and gnash your teeth all the way through them, and at the end,..."

Ha, that describes this book perfectly. Anytime there is a hopeful character, they wind up crucified or stoned a few pages later. I had picked it at random thinking, hey i'll relax and read this on Easter since that would be a fitting book choice for the day. And then went to bed sad ha.


s.penkevich Steve wrote: "I think it would be interesting if there were local discussion groups that would be a lot like Sunday school in their choice of topics (morality and ethics, mostly), but less doctrinaire. It looks..."

Yeah, this would be a good book to debate in a group such as that. Especially since the end is so ambiguous.

I went with Master and Margarita, i need something funny ha. Maybe some C&H as well!


message 20: by Traveller (new)

Traveller I like your disclaimer. It's a good idea, actually, since people who don't know you well can often misconstrue what you say.


message 21: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Awesome review man. I really interested in reading this now.

You know, Steve. I had never thought about Calvin and Hobbes, as names relating to philosophers. Ugh, mind blown. Those were my favorite books as a child.


message 22: by Mohit (new) - added it

Mohit  Parikh Great review! The book definitely in my 2012 to-read list.


s.penkevich Stephen M wrote: "Awesome review man. I really interested in reading this now.

You know, Steve. I had never thought about Calvin and Hobbes, as names relating to philosophers. Ugh, mind blown. Those were my favorit..."


Thanks! Ha yeah they were the philosophers of my childhood now that I look at it that way.


s.penkevich Traveller wrote: "I like your disclaimer. It's a good idea, actually, since people who don't know you well can often misconstrue what you say."

Thank you. Yeah I just wanted to say the book was good but was worried it was tough to separate the book from religious opinion. I have friends on here from many places and cultures and I value them all, so I didn't want to risk alienating anyone


message 25: by Traveller (new)

Traveller s.penkevich wrote: "Thank you. Yeah I just wanted to say the book was good but was worried it was tough to separate the book from religious opinion. I have friends on here from many places and cultures and I value them all, so I didn't want to risk alienating anyone .."

Heh, believe me, I know exactly what you're talking about. I also somehow managed to collect myself a range of ideologies, religions, ethnicities, orientations, and you name it, - a whole range of very different people into my friend's list.

At first it worried me that this one or that one would take up issue with things I said (and my opinions can seem to vary, I'm quite aware), but boo, you can't please everyone, and I'm here to express opinions after all, so disclaimers seem to be a good way to go. (hahah- I should save a automatic disclaimer somewhere and include it in my every post and review... ) XD Hehe.

Anyway, if people want to disagree, as long as we can remain reasonably polite, then we could discourse at length, or just agree to disagree in the end.


message 26: by Maria (new)

Maria Carmo Hello, What a magnificent review and a very appropriate disclaimer! Congrats, it was so interesting and much deeper than it is usual to come accross. It made me feel really curous about the book. Excellent!

Maria


message 27: by Hend (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hend i reread your review after i have finished it....
yours are awesome ..!
i cant dare to make mine.....:)

do u think Barabbas struggling to believe has any reflection on Pär life himself ,his own trial to
understand Jesus ....?

i read it as a historical and Philosophical novel not Religious one and give my rating on this basis,as i believe in Jesus in a different way .....


message 28: by Stephen (new)

Stephen P Not the type of book I would ordinarily be interested in. But opposite to your disclaimer, your review lit me up and makes the sensitive topic, in the scope of this book spenke, something I will look forward to reading.


s.penkevich Stephen wrote: "Not the type of book I would ordinarily be interested in. But opposite to your disclaimer, your review lit me up and makes the sensitive topic, in the scope of this book spenke, something I will lo..."

Thanks, Stephen. It is quite good, but a bit bleak. I hope you enjoy it if you get to it, there is some pure poetic brilliance going on in all the darkness.


message 30: by Jonathan (new) - added it

Jonathan Interesting, both you and Aubrey seemed to like it and I'm always up for something that discusses religious themes. There's an issue I note in some circles where people seem afraid to touch certain ideas for fear they will be contaminated somehow but ideas can really only affect you if you personally let them and where some people I know would probably see this as an 'irreligious work' this actually sounds really good in terms of discussion.


s.penkevich Jonathan wrote: "Interesting, both you and Aubrey seemed to like it and I'm always up for something that discusses religious themes. There's an issue I note in some circles where people seem afraid to touch certain..."

Ooo, yeah, I hope you read this one because I agree, this is ripe for discussion. I need to read more of his books to see where the authors personal beliefs reside, because I felt this one was very open to interpretation and could be read as going either way.


message 32: by Stephen (new)

Stephen P s.penkevich wrote: "Jonathan wrote: "Interesting, both you and Aubrey seemed to like it and I'm always up for something that discusses religious themes. There's an issue I note in some circles where people seem afraid..."

spenk.: I like it when a book can be read as going either way. I usually find out more what I think and believe. Did this happen for you in what is sounding more and more like a book I am going to read soon?


David Ward Thoughtful and well-reasoned review.


s.penkevich Dave wrote: "Thoughtful and well-reasoned review."

Thank you very much!


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