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Mary Whipple Reviews: "In this startling and ingenious “biography” of Lazarus, told with a light, often humorous touch, Richard Beard defies the limits of biography..."

Date: Sep 27 2012

St. Peter:  ‘Tell us what [resurrection] was like.’

Lazarus:  ‘Let me speak with Jesus…Please, we have some catching up to do.”

St. Peter:  ‘Do you want to thank him?”

Lazarus:  ‘I don’t know.  What counts as good behaviour after a resurrection?’ ”

In this startling and ingenious “biography” of Lazarus, told with a light, often humorous touch, Richard Beard defies the limits of biography by mixing known elements from the Gospel of John (and from historical research) with elements from his own imagination. Often “proving” his theories about the relationship of Lazarus and Jesus by drawing on the equally fertile imaginations of many other novelists and artists who have also explored the story of Lazarus, Beard then adds additional elements of fantasy, where necessary, to flesh out the story and make his points. The result is a unique look at the life of Lazarus – and of Jesus – which will surprise and delight readers who have a flexible view of scripture and a sense of perspective, if not humor. I hasten to add here that Beard is not writing a satire or a farce, and he is especially careful in his presentation to avoid any sense of disrespect toward the religious context of his story – he is simply offering some alternatives to a contemporary reader while giving new meaning to the term “fictionalized biography” as he depicts Lazarus.

The Lazarus and Jesus we see in this biographical novel are products of their times, friends from childhood who were so close that people found them difficult to tell apart. Born at the same time in Bethlehem, Lazarus believes that the appearance of a bright star at his birth augurs his own future success, and, in fact, he has now become a successful trader of sheep in Bethany, having captured the market for sacrificial lambs at the local synagogue. Jesus and his family have moved frequently, and though each knows what the other has been doing, the two boys, now thirty-two-year-old men, have not seen each other for thirteen years.

Through Lazarus’s eyes, the story of their shared childhood unfolds in flashbacks, including the escape their families made together after Joseph, father of Jesus, was told by an angel that soldiers were about to massacre all the male children in the city. Joseph and his family brought along Lazarus and his family when they escaped to Egypt – and only they escaped. “That’s what friends are for,” Joseph explains. The boys also suffer a childhood tragedy together, and it is clear that Jesus even then, had an idea of his later mission in life. Now an adult drawing large crowds throughout the country, Jesus has become a tangible threat to the Romans and to several different branches of Judaism who are losing their congregations to Jesus, but when Lazarus’s future father-in-law questions him about Jesus and their friendship, Lazarus downplays his importance – “He was a small boy with scabs on his knees. Like the rest of us. He couldn’t even swim.”

The new action of the novel begins a year before the crucifixion of Jesus, and the reader quickly becomes involved as Jesus begins to perform miracles – turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana, healing a sick boy while he is twenty miles away, healing a paralyzed man so he can walk, and feeding five thousand people with a few fish and loaves of bread. With the first miracle, however, Lazarus becomes mysteriously ill, and as successive miracles occur, his illnesses become more serious, more devastating, and more painful.  Jesus continues to make miracles. He walks on water, heals a blind man, and begins to practice resurrections.

The events leading to the obvious historical climax take place in the space of a little over a week, beginning with the death of Lazarus, then moving to his resurrection by Jesus four days later, the crucifixion of Jesus four days after that, and the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after the crucifixion. The novel is organized in unusual fashion around the seven miracles and their aftermaths, the chapters numbered backward from seven until the climax, then forward after that, focusing on the aftereffects of these miracles. Those who have been the recipients of miracles, and especially those who have been resurrected, have another chance at life, of course, though what they do with their new lives becomes a question for them. The political and religious conflicts of the era come to a head with the deaths of Lazarus and Jesus. The authorities representing both Rome and the factions of Judaism must come to grips with the results, their power challenged by these dramatic events in ways never even imagined before this. What happens to both Jesus and Lazarus physically in the aftermath of resurrection raises interesting questions for historians and theologians and stimulates Beard’s fertile imagination here.

A whole panoply of other authors helps author Beard to make his case for the “realism” of his depiction of Lazarus and his relationship with Jesus. Jose Saramago in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Karel Kapek in Lazarus (1949), Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation (1961), Robert Graves in King Jesus (1946), Par Lagerqvist in Barabbas (1950), and Norman Mailer in The Gospel According to the Son (1997) are among the many authors who “testify” to the truth of Beard’s assumptions about Lazarus and Jesus. Art works by Juan de Flandes, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Limbourg Brothers in their Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry (1412 – 1414) provide additional “insights” into the death of Lazarus, while works by Fra Angelico (1520), Andrea del Castagno (1447) and Leonardo da Vinci depict Jesus’s Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

The characters feel “real,” at least in modern terms, as they deal with surreal events, but the novel is more philosophical and more wildly imaginative than most biographies, especially in its use of other novels and art work as “primary sources.” The novel fills in the gaps between the earlier gospels and the Gospel of John, the only gospel to mention Lazarus, while also encouraging the reader to think in new directions. Unusual in its selection of subject, development of character, and depiction of imagined motivations, this novel is sure to intrigue those willing and able to “go with the flow” of this unique, miracle-based fictional biography.

from Mary Whipple Reviews