A fact which often surprises those who pick up the Bible in adulthood, having not looked at it for years, is how very short the stories are. Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, the Feeding of the Five Thousand — in spite of their familiarity they are raced through in just a few lines. It is, however, perhaps the very terseness of the Bible that has caused at least as much ink as blood to be spilled in its cause; had it spelled the answer out, for instance, medieval scholars could never have whiled away so many jaw-droppingly fatuous hours in wondering how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and other pressing questions.
In his new novel Richard Beard draws attention to this brevity and uses it as a springboard. He takes one of the better-known biblical tales, which appears only in the Gospel of St John, and makes leaps (of varying degrees of plausibility, though that’s exactly the point) based on the scant clues provided. We know from John that when Lazarus’s sisters approached Jesus to tell him of their brother’s illness, they referred to Lazarus as (according to the King James Version) ‘he whom thou lovest’, and the gospel’s narrator adds, two verses later, ‘Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus’. From this, Beard infers a bond begun before the two boys were born, when their parents fled from tyranny together, but which dwindled when they were in early adulthood: Lazarus went off to become a flamboyant dealer in sheep while Jesus remained to practise carpentry, and the two lost touch.
The major part of Lazarus is Dead is set during the final period in each man’s life — or, rather, each man’s first life. During that time Jesus has begun to work miracles and to attract his share of idolatry and suspicion. Lazarus, in contrast, from being at the peak of his considerable health and potency succumbs to every illness available and starts to die. We know what will happen, of course, but Beard expands the narrative to encompass pride on Lazarus’s part and a refusal, as he begins to sicken, to beg for help from his old friend, who was once the lesser partner in their double-act but who is now too aloof to visit even when he’s in town.
Lazarus is Dead is described on the jacket as ‘genre-bending’, which is accurate, since it combines literary fiction with a highly speculative form of biography-cum-history. The feel, therefore, is a little like those programmes which ‘bring history to life’ by mixing factual analysis with dramatic scenes. It doesn’t work particularly well in the early part; it is hard to become absorbed into the action due to the occasionally dry-as-dust commentary, such as:
The question about when Lazarus befriended Jesus is partially answered in a book by the Portuguese novelist and Nobel prize-winner José Saramago. In The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Saramago identifies ‘a moral flaw in the popular story of the nativity ’.
The breadth of learning in this book is admirable, but when research is dumped into a novel directly the whole mechanism of the book becomes clogged.
However, partly because we become used to the splicing of fiction and history, and partly because Beard handles the climactic events of Lazarus’s resurrection and the subsequent crucifixion of Jesus so skilfully, this is a book which gets better as it goes along. By the end, the early frustrations with the format are joined — and maybe eclipsed — by admiration at the subtle portrayal of friendship and rivalry. Lazarus and Jesus remain bound in this novel, with Jesus as the heavenly saviour who brings Lazarus back, and Lazarus as the earthly one who saved his friend from a fatal fall when the two of them were boys. Despite the settling-in problems, this is a thoughtful, enjoyable book.
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