The Death of Ahasuerus
"I've always liked wandering about, being alone, at peace. Perhaps that day I felt more need for it than usual - more need to get away from the others; I was weary of this meaningless existence, of the pointlessness of everything." (p 33)
Set during the age of medieval pilgrimages, the first part of Par Lagerkvist's short novel brings together two fascinating, yet mysterious characters. They include Tobias (a soldier who became a bandit) and a wandering saint who meet at an inn on the way to the Holy Land. Although each look at divinity, sin, atonement and faith in different ways, embarking on the same road to Jerusalem (one on a mission as a sort of soldier of fortune, the other there to not let him alone). Both trying to accomplish a personal dream. But Tobias has acquired another companion along the way, a woman named, appropriately for this story, Diana.
We eventually come to understand that the alien could not be anyone but Ahasuerus, a name that is known in mythology as the "Wandering Jew" . It is the monologue of Ahasuerus that forms the second part of the novel. The interactions among the characters on their journey somehow surprised this reader, while the importance of the relation of them to each other and to nature was overpowering in its implications. From the scene of the storm to its peaceful aftermath the beauty of nature is exemplified in the following passage: "On the very loftiest mountains now had fallen - the first since the summer - and white peaks rose to the heavens like a song of praise." (p 64)
The ideas, images and questions raised by this story combine to make it an exceptionally thoughtful read. The story is told in an impressionistic style where glimpses of individuals and their environment must suffice to produce the overall picture. What sets Lagerkvist apart is his use of paradox, and his constant examination of faith and one's relationship to "god." The monologue of Ahauerus gives shape to this examination and questioning of the meaning of divinity. In this and in its beauty the novel mirrors aspects of life. It is a book that ends too quickly and that, ultimately, makes you wish to think about its meaning and perhaps read it again.
"People puzzle themselves so much about what they're to live on - they talk and talk about it. But what is one to live for? Can you tell me? (p 32)
The Death of Ahasuerus by Par Lagerkvist. Naomi Walford, trans. Random House, New York. 1962 (1960)
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