Lazarus Is Dead
by Richard Beard
We all know the story: Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, Lazarus walks from his tomb. This most spectacular of Jesus' miracles is only reported in the gospel of John, who uses it as the confirmation of Jesus' divinity, the most powerful of the seven miracles that frame his narrative, the moment where Jesus shows his power over the one thing none of us can avoid. And no, I don't mean taxes. In his new novel Beard also uses the number seven to frame his narrative. Seven chapters count down to the death of Lazarus, then seven more continue after his resurrection. This structure gives the book a pleasing mathematical neatness but also manages in itself to contribute to the narrative tensions. We all know where that arc is heading but to have it actually countdown somehow removes inevitability and replaces it with a tension I shall describe for the moment as the literary equivalent to the ticking clock on the TV series 24. The real kick is entirely literary though. This book has an intriguing viewpoint and posits some bold ideas so that as the chapters begin to count up again there's almost nowhere Beard is afraid to go.
Let's begin with the one certainty in the story of Lazarus. He is dead. 'He died, he came back to life, but then he died again. If he were alive today, we would know. I think' This is the only certainty (we think), everything else is up for grabs more or less and the unique viewpoint of Beard's novel is to allow the narrative voice to present its factual research alongside the narrative. The novel is an investigation into the sketchy details of the Bible narrative that uses artworks, later fictional representations like those from José Saramago and Karel Čapek, and theory to arrive at a new telling of the story. You might call it the most complete version of events but even Beard knows that 'Even outside the story, beyond time, with the benefit of hindsight and foresight, it can be very difficult to fit every factor together.'
I might have made that sound a little dry but it is anything but. It is an engaging style and always easy to understand. It just feels like common sense. We know for example that Lazarus is described as a friend of Jesus, the only man in the whole bible to have that accolade bestowed on him. But how are they friends? The bible cannot help us but the prevalence of Lazarus in artistic depictions, out of all proportion to 'his brief appearance in a single gospel', means that perhaps they were long time friends, since childhood. Go back to the moment when Joseph heard that the children of Bethlehem were to be slaughtered. Morally he'd want to save more than just his own son but he can't save them all. But he could save a friend's. And so we join Joseph as he hustles his own best friend and their family along with his own away from the impending massacre, unable to explain.
'The children. They are very special.'
'I know that.' Eliakim understands instantly that they can't go back. 'Every child is special.'
'The boys needed saving. Our boys.'
Yes, that would make them the firmest of friends. And so we follow their childhood together where it is Lazarus who excels both at synagogue and at play, 'Jesus looks before he leaps. Lazarus likes to leap.' In one extraordinary scene the two boys along with Lazarus' younger brother Amos climb the scaffolding that surrounds the construction of a new amphitheatre. It is raining. Lazarus makes his precarious progress to the top and then offers to help his more cautious friend up.
Jesus reaches up but not far enough, and he falls. His hands and his arms and his body detach from the scaffold and out he goes, into the air, clear space all around him. Lazarus swipes at his clothes and clings on, hauls him up and over and onto the safe flat roof. It is an impossible achievement, an unbelievable rescue.
How nearly Jesus might have perished as a child. How miraculous was the intervention of Lazarus? But we can come back to that later. Whilst we follow the logical assembly of Lazarus' back story we also read about the more immediate construction of his death. What did Lazarus die of? Again, the Bible never makes it clear and having investigated the most common illnesses of the period Beard reaches the only rational conclusion:
The story demands that Lazarus suffer. The more hideous his death the more impressive his revival ... his sickness should be horrific, definitive, undeniable. It should be both recognisable and worse than anything anyone has ever seen.Lazarus is cast firmly as an agent in the narrative of Jesus the Messiah. It is not only the miracle of his resurrection that confirms this status but it seems possible that their whole lives together have provided the foundations for the grand construct that is to come, 'If Jesus is the son of god, then all stories both before and after exist in the service of this one incredible story.' One of the boldest aspects of this novel is to allow the life of Lazarus to underpin the miracles he didn't even play a part in. Perhaps the second most spectacular miracle was Jesus' walking on water. The act in itself is miraculous but it is important not to forget that it comes during a storm that threatens the lives of his disciples and we have to understand the very real danger of that water. So Beard creates a scenario that does just that as well as providing the conflict that means it is the sisters of Lazarus who eventually send for his help rather than his once close friend. If Jesus never learned to swim but watched as his friend swam out with his younger brother, deeper and deeper, until the dangerous currents put them both in jeopardy, what would, or could, he do? And for Lazarus there will first be the immediacy of guilt but then much later, with the talk of Jesus' divinity and miraculous intervention, there must also be blame, or disbelief.
Yes, this is how it was done. Lazarus did not die from one of the seven prevalent illnesses of ancient Israel. Not enough. He has to contract them all.
He wanted to help Amos, with his whole heart he wanted to save him, but only to the point where he had to save himself. That was as far as his saving would go. Ahead of him Amos went under. Lazarus thrashed with his arms. Amos drifted away from him. Lazarus felt the nearness of death and he knew, with absolute certainty, that above all else he wanted to live.No wonder he didn't send for his friend when everyone else believed that Jesus could provide the miraculous healing required, even when he was suffering so terribly; the prospect of Jesus holding that power was too painful to contemplate. If he had it then why hadn't he used it?
Jesus stood on the shore. He didn't help because he couldn't swim. He patiently watched Amos drown. He watched Lazarus save himself. He did not intervene.
...Jesus walks on water. Jesus stands on the shore with their clothes in his arms, watching Amos drown. The gap between these two events is the emptiness into which Lazarus falls.
The approach is unusual, the narrative bold and exhilarating and this is before we have even reached the moment of Lazarus' death, let alone what comes after. The political and social pressures of the time will have their moment and we will learn just how parallel the lives of Jesus and Lazarus might be perceived. In fact, and here perhaps is the novel's boldest conceit, how can you be sure that you've picked the right man for the job? When Lazarus finds himself being interrogated after his return from the dead he states the bare facts of his existence in order to refute the notion that he might be the Messiah predicted in the scripture. But so closely has his life mirrored that of his best friend that his interrogator can only reply, 'Exactly. You're everything the scriptures said you would be.'
Reading this novel is exhilarating for many reasons. As Beard himself says, 'A point of stagnation has been reached in scholarly and theological studies. A new approach is needed' and this book with its melding of fiction and non-fiction, critical analysis and detective work, consolidation and controversy, is a potent combination that breathes life not only into the 'imaginative representations' of historical events but also into the possibilities of what we think a novel might be able to achieve. And at the just the time when some people out there would love to be able to announce the death of the book. Oh, the irony.