Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What I'm Reading: Barabbas

I guess it's a little weird of me to be reading an Easter-themed story during Christmas, but it is what it is. I guess it does have a central theme of religion? Christ? I don't know, I got nothing.

Barabbas is a book that I've actually already read. I took a course in modern Swedish literature while I was in college—but it was a course specifically for international (read as: American) students, so everything we read was an English translation, even if we were studying Swedish at the time. Barabbas was one of those books.

Pä Lagerkvist is probably one of Sweden's preeminent writers, yet I fear he might be fading into literary obscurity. Apparently it's not hip to read him anymore; my Swedish teacher this year, while I was presenting another one of Lagerkvist's novels, said that if you conducted a survey of Swedes, maybe half of them would know Lagerkvist.


Vintage Books, 1989
Finally, after years of searching for it, I finally found a copy of Barabbas (possibly one of my all-time favorite novels?) in Swedish. I try to do as much reading as I can in Swedish to keep my language up, especially now that I'm not in class, and an easy way to do it is to pick up books that I've already read in English. That way I don't get so stressed about understanding what's going on.

 For those of you who didn't grow up on a steady diet of church and Sunday school, Barabbas is the criminal who is set free (according to the dictates of mob rule and angry Pharisees) while Jesus Christ is condemned to be crucified. Lagerkvist's novel takes this Biblical footnote and places him front and center at the story, short and easy but nonetheless penetrating and illuminating. Disturbed by his encounter with Jesus first in the prison and then at Golgotha (where he watches the crucifixion from a distance), Barabbas sets out to learn more about the meek, strange figure who took his place on the cross.

On the surface this sounds like an awkward little Easter Sunday homily, something on par with The Pilgrim's Progress, but in reality it's a moving account of the search for faith and belief in the face of a bleak world utterly without miracles. I won't spoil the ending here except to say that it's an ambiguous one with many layers of interpretation.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm reading it in Swedish now, but originally read it in English. The translation I read was by Alan Blair, and as translations go it is an excellent one. (I have no idea if it's the only one available; it would make sense, because really it's a wonderful translation that won't need updating for a long, long time.) If you're browsing your favorite book place (library, bookstore, etc.) and stumble across this little gem, pick it up. Or read the whole thing online! (As far as novels go, it's a short one. No worries.) It's got something for everyone, regardless of faith (or lack thereof).

What are you reading for Christmas?

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