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Books: The Religious Atheist

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THE DEATH OF AHASUERUS (118 pp.)—Pär Lagerkvist—Random House ($3.75).

Lugging his heavy cross, a convict was toiling up the steep street of Jerusalem that led to the hill of execution. He paused once, and would have rested against one of the houses. But the householder, standing in the doorway, told the convict to move on. He had seen plenty of such criminals on the way to crucifixion, and he did not think that they needed coddling. This one, though, turned and laid a curse on him: he was condemned to walk the earth through the centuries, yearning for death.

This is the apocryphal legend of Ahasuerus. the Wandering Jew condemned by Christ to homeless immortality. If Ahasuerus had not been invented by some unknown storyteller of the Middle Ages, it seems likely that Swedish Author Par Lagerkvist would have reinvented him to embody the mystical dialectic of his own devout skepticism. As a younger man. Lagerkvist—now 70—wrote of himself that he was “a believer without a belief, a religious atheist.” Today, after half a century of novels, plays, stories and poems that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1951, Lagerkvist is still obsessed with God, still a believing unbeliever.

The Curse. In Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl, Wandering Jew Ahasuerus also appeared, questioning an old priestess at Delphi about the meaning of the curse upon him.

She, who had suffered under a pagan god as he had suffered from the Christian God. told him: “Through his curse you live a life with god . . . Perhaps one day he will bless you instead of cursing you. But whatever you may do, your fate will be forever bound up with god, your soul forever filled with god.” The sibyl’s prophecy is fulfilled in Lagerkvist’s new book, in which god finally allows Ahasuerus to die. Like Lagerkvist’s other novels, this is written in the prose of parables, plain and simple, pared to the essential scene and angle like a painting by Giotto, held like a Giotto to a single mood of grave wonder. And like his other novels, its meanings are dark and paradoxical and hard to come by.

The Pilgrims. As the novel opens, centuries after the curse, the stranger (for the novel names him only in its title) appears suddenly out of a storm, seeking refuge in an inn for medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land. Somewhere upstairs are the rich Christians, with their finery and servants. But the pilgrims among whom the stranger finds himself are a rabble. Some are drunk. Others rob and cheat each other. One girl finances her pilgrimage by sleeping with whichever pilgrim has the price.

Among them is Tobias, an unbeliever, who has felt himself somehow impelled to embark upon a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on behalf of an unknown woman whom he had found dead with the stigmata—the marks of the Crucifixion. Attached to Tobias is Diana, a once beautiful woman turned promiscuous slattern, who ridicules the idea of the pilgrimage and tags along only to be with him. Ahasuerus joins them, and the three unbelievers set out on a strange, symbolic pilgrimage several days’ journey behind the other pilgrims.

None of the three reach Jerusalem, but each seems to find his own Holy Land by committing himself blindly and with love.

Diana dies, happy and beautiful again when she deliberately flings herself into the path of an arrow aimed at Tobias.

Tobias desperately entrusts all his money and his life to an evil band of cutthroats in an attempt to make a doomed voyage to the Holy Land when he finds that the regular ship has left. And Ahasuerus, who has committed himself to the others, has found himself through them on a pilgrimage even without faith, and is granted the blessing he longs for—”the land of death, the holy land.” The Burning Thirst. As he lies dying at last, ancient Ahasuerus accepts Christ as his brother, and yearns for the stupendous, inaccessible essence that lies behind the theologies and rituals and beliefs.

“Beyond all the sacred clutter, the holy thing itself must exist,” he cries. “That I believe, of that I am certain.” But he still defies the being he calls god with a contemptuous small g. God, says Ahasuerus, separates man from the divine, from the sacred spring. “To god I do not kneel—no, and I never will. But I would gladly lie down at the spring to drink from it—to quench my thirst, my burning thirst for what I cannot conceive of, but which I know exists. And perhaps that is what I’m doing now. Now that the battle is over at last and I may die. Now that at last I have won peace.”

How has Ahasuerus won his peace? By kneeling, Lagerkvist seems to be saying, not to worship but to drink.

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