Strindberg's slot in March was taken over by one of the 'others', an old favourite of mine, the Swedish Nobel Laureate Pär Lagerkvist. It must have been more than fifty years since I first read his novel Barabbas, the story about the crucifixion seen from the point of view of Barabbas, the evil-doer who was released instead of Christ.
‘Everyone knows how they hung there on their crosses,’ writes Lagerkvist. It may have been true in many western countries fifty years ago but the story cannot be expected to have the same familiar feel today when most people are not obliged to study the Bible at school or necessarily attend Sunday school where they might learn about the most famous stories from the Bible.
Lagerkvist introduces the disciples, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene but without naming them. We simply assume that they are these well-known figures from the New Testament, judging by their speeches and actions. So what is the point of retelling a story that is already covered in four gospels?
Lagerkvist, who had been brought up in a pious home with a non-conformist religion, was put off by the claustrophobic atmosphere in the halls and churches he used to attend as a child. He called himself an atheist believer. He was certainly an agnostic, but throughout this slim novel there is quite clearly a longing for a god, for communion with other people who have a faith. Barabbas is baffled and visibly shocked by Christ's death. He watches that thin ‘rabbi’ on the cross and can't understand how he ended up there. A weakling who could not even carry his own cross but who had to let Simon of Cyrene do it for him. Barabbas cannot imagine Christ committing the kind of crimes which would call for the worst death penalty imaginable, so he lingers on Golgotha and watches the crucifixion and observes the people surrounding the cross. He can't help thinking that if it had been him hanging there on a cross there would not have been such a crowd watching. After this shattering experience his old friends do not hold such fascination for him any more. He goes back to their den and drinks with his old companions and makes love to his favourite whore, but he is not himself and he can't let himself go like the others. His curiosity brings him to the disciples and he starts talking to them about Golgotha. When they realise who he is they curse him and don't want any more to do with him but Barabbas goes to the place where Christ had been buried amongst the rocks and there he waits to see if Christ is going to rise from the dead like he said he would. Barabbas doesn't believe he will but he goes there all the same and finds a woman there, waiting for the resurrection. She actually sees an angel descending from heaven and it is her story that Barabbas repeats when he is chained to a Christian slave in the copper mines later. The slave reveres Barabbas because he has seen God, he was there when it happened. The kindness that he receives from the woman and his fellow slave gradually softens him and when the slave dies for his faith Barabbas is visibly moved and, for the first time in his life, he feels compassion. The book cleverly argues that goodness spreads and it is the chain reaction of goodness which gives us hope for peace and love among people.
This novel was translated and adapted for the stage by me and presented as an Easter drama at the Swedish church on Palm Sunday 2012.