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Interesting idea failed slightly by its format
on 20 August 2011
The story of Lazarus will be familiar to most people; resurrected by Jesus after being dead for four days. Lazarus is a popular figure in art and literature, but his actual appearances in the bible are limited.
Beard addresses this, attempts to fill in the gaps and to answer the question as to why the myth of Lazarus is so enduring, despite being so sparse in detail.
Lazarus is the only person in the bible described as being Jesus's friend and Beard takes this as a starting point, documenting their competitive childhood relationship, up until they go separate ways in adulthood, Lazarus as an ambitious farmer, Jesus as a preacher.
With Jesus's first miracle Lazarus becomes ill, getting progressively worse with each subsequent one, until finally dying and becoming Jesus's greatest miracle himself. In the background of this we see the priests of the Jewish Temple plotting against both of them, a fake healer struggling with Lazarus's illness and a devious Roman bureaucrat attempting to using the growing notoriety of the friends for his own ends.
Beard has set out to tell the Jesus story from a different angle and at the same time create a memoir for Lazarus. To do this he draws on all the references to Lazarus he can find in literature, music and art. He has obviously done a huge amount of research into his subject and succeeds in producing a compelling narrative from his sources. Written in historical present tense this is very much the world of Jesus seen through Lazarus's eyes.
So it should bring him to life. Except it doesn't quite. His motives seem muddied and his relationship with Jesus is never fully realised, probably from Beard's decision to keep Jesus as a periphery figure so as not to overshadow his less famous friend. Also Beard's decision to make Lazarus vague about what happened to him while dead gives the climax to the novel an insubstantial atmosphere.
I think the problem may have something more to do with the way in which snippets of his source material are littered throughout the novel. It gives the feeling of crib notes and pulls the reader out of the narrative in a jolting manner. For me, rather than enforcing the plot, as Beard intended, it renders it less convincing.
Which is a shame, because it's an interesting premise and is written with imagination and no small style.