- The Gospel According to Lazarus, by Richard Zimler. NewSouth. $32.99.
Slackers who skipped Bible class need to know that the moment when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead is a climactic scene in the Gospels.
For Christian believers, that restoring of a friend to life involves a conclusive proof of Jesus' powers (Lazarus is not merely blind nor lame, but dead), an emphatic declaration of his standing (as the resurrection and the life) and an intolerable provocation to Jesus' enemies (who then sedulously plot his death).
In John's Gospel, after four days in the tomb, still shrouded by grave cloths, Lazarus remains mute. He reveals nothing about whether there is an after-life and what form that might take.
Nor does he do so in Richard Zimler's re-creation of Lazarus' life. Rather than answer the question in which any reader is most interested, this Lazarus is merely numb, muddled and confused. Zimler's Lazarus is well-read in the scriptures, wins word games, designs mosaic floors, frequents brothels and suffers from a dry throat and cold feet when revived. His neighbours want to convert his celebrity into a tourist attraction; their two-headed cobra has exhausted its allure. After returning from the dead, Lazarus does speak, but only to insist that no prophetic or apocalyptic messages are "ciphered in my mind or engraved on my hands".
This novel deals in gritty evocation of daily life rather than flights of fancy. Zimler, an expert on Sephardi Jewish culture, depicts Lazarus as "a companion who would listen to his (Jesus') confessions without judging him or betraying his cause". He saves Jesus from drowning, talks deeply to him and tries to prevent his death. John's Gospel is more emphatic, declaring that Jesus "loved" Lazarus and wept when he learned of his friend's death. As he proceeds, Zimler adds layers of depth to his versions of both Lazarus and Jesus, focusing less on settings than on confrontations between individuals. The scene when Jesus rescues a woman taken in adultery, as we were taught to say, is dramatic, urgent and profound. So too is a humiliation of Lazarus by Roman soldiers.
Other writers have elaborated and embroidered the Bible to produce compelling creative work of their own.
So, too, has Zimler.