I once saw an interview with novelist Salman Rushdie on C-Span where he discussed his interest in religion, despite the fact that he sees himself as an atheist. He said to the interviewer that “Atheists are often obsessed with religion...” and I think there is some truth to this statement. Being an atheist myself, I am often fascinated with the biblical stories and the history and development of religion; and I do sincerely believe that there is an element of historical truth to these stories, no matter how embellished they may be to make their points. This is why a novel like Richard Beard’s “Lazarus is Dead” was a source of fascination for me.
Written in the form of a biography/historical study, the story contained within re-imagines the life of Lazarus, telling the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion through his eyes and imagining the events taking place in his own life. Lazarus, as any student of religion knows, was the man that Jesus resurrected from the dead by calling him out of his tomb. The novel elaborates on the events told in the Gospel of John, where Lazarus’s story is told in more detail, whereas the others barely mention him or completely ignore him. It is the culmination of all of Jesus’s miracles, the one that should have proved to those who followed him that he was indeed the messiah that everyone thought he was. What the novel does, though, is take the story back many many years, using biblical scripture, literary sources, and art to try to put together the missing pieces to develop a more well rounded story of Lazarus the man and his relationship to Jesus. This relationship, not elaborated on in the Gospels, begins with Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus before he resurrects him.
The story re-imagines their relationship, having them being friends since childhood in Bethlehem. Having them both being survivors of King Herod’s massacre of all the children born “under the bright star”. Both Jesus’s and Lazarus’s families flee to Egypt and eventually return to Nazareth many years later. Their friendship is like any other childhood friendship, however, to Lazarus, Jesus was “a follower”. Lazarus remembers their times together playing as children do and often getting Jesus out of trouble and other perilous situations. To Lazarus, Jesus wasn’t a remarkable child. Just like any other child in the town and he often saw himself as superior to him. This feeling is only reenforced by an event that changed Lazarus’s life. While swimming in a lake, Lazarus’s brother Amos drowns. Lazarus does his best to save his brother’s life while the young Jesus stands by helplessly. It is an event that will forever define Jesus in Lazarus’s mind.
Flash forward many years later. Lazarus is now living in the town of Bethany while Jesus is going around Judea developing his following of disciples. The two have not seen one another in many years and word is getting around that Jesus is performing miracles and very well may be the messiah everyone had been waiting for. Lazarus dismisses this idea, of course, having known Jesus since childhood and remembering him as an unremarkable child. But their connection still remains, albeit in a very surrealistic way. With each miracle Jesus performs, Lazarus becomes sicker and sicker, eventually to the point where is nearly a walking corpse who stinks to high heaven. His sister and his soon to be wife beg him to call on Jesus to help him but he refuses, seeing himself as superior man and not believing all these stories about his childhood friend that have been circulating all over Judea.
To make matters worse, the Roman officials, as well as the high priests of the Temple, are now well aware of the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus and they begin to suspect that perhaps their connection is more than just a mere childhood one. They fear that Jesus is looking to start trouble during the Passover week in Jerusalem and Lazarus may somehow be involved. Rome send their spies to keep an eye on him and the high priests of the Temple are also keeping an eye out.
Eventually, Lazarus succumbs to his illness and is buried in his tomb. Jesus finally arrives in Bethany and is told that his friend Lazarus has died. Jesus weeps, as the biblical account relates, and calls his friend out of the tomb. Lazarus reemerges from the tomb, to the astonishment of everyone. Lazarus lives again. He wants to talk to his long time friend, to ask him questions, to find answers, however, Jesus keeps his distance and eventually leaves Bethany along with his disciples.
News of Lazarus’s resurrection naturally unnerves both the Roman authorities and the high priests of the Temple, who now think the whole affair is a sham, designed to further Jesus’s mission in Jerusalem. Lazarus’s life becomes even more complicated as he seeks the answers for what has happened to him.
The rest of the novel tries to put together these “missing pieces” in the story and although highly fictional, it forces the reader to think that perhaps these missing pieces are a logical extension of the story told in the biblical accounts. It is a thought provoking and possibly even controversial idea but the more the reader thinks about it, the more logical it becomes. The controversial element lies in the idea that perhaps Jesus learned how to proceed through observing other’s reactions to his miracles, culminating in the reaction to the resurrection of Lazarus, pre-figuring his own eventual resurrection and setting the stage for his greatest miracle of all.
There is another thread running through this story: the story of a man who thought he was destined for greatness and watching one he thought unremarkable and inferior to himself becoming much greater than he will ever be. The feeling of one being left in the shadows while another usurps a glory he thought destined for himself. Meanwhile his feelings of being “overtaken” turns out not to be the case at all. His experiences and what had happened to him being essential to a much greater event yet to happen and could not have happened without his participation, however mysterious and unnerving it may have been.
This is a truly imaginative and thought provoking novel and definitely one that will keep you riveted as you follow the author’s path through biblical accounts, art history and literature as he pieces together a possible story of the events that had taken place. Part biography, part literature, part investigative journalism, it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the end. Brilliant.
Rating: * * * * *