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Monday, May 5, 2014

Altogether changed, yet the same

Yesterday I finished reading Lew Wallace's Biblical masterpiece Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It is a bestseller and a classic -- child of the world's most printed book and parent to a 1959 award-winning blockbuster, Ben-Hur had been on my reading list for some time now. Hunting in the school library for some summer reading and not finding my first choice (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit), I scanned the shelves again and ran into this.
The cover design of the HSMS library's copy of Ben-Hur,
showing a detail from Chariot Race by Alexander von Wagner.
The picture is of another copy, available online.
The writing is vivid and engrossing, and I enjoyed the descriptions of places, people and food, which are typical to period narratives. I am partial to old stories retold from different viewpoints, which, combined with my love for history-fantasy-thrillers, made Ben-Hur exceptionally enjoyable to me. I liked how Wallace elaborates on Ben-Hur's life and touches upon Christ only when their lives intersect. That way, despite knowing the original story of Christ, there is no way to be bored. Moreover, the usual exciting elements of narrative -- betrayal, conspiracy, conflict, envy, manipulation, malice, pride -- are all illustrated many times over. The book also fed my weakness for archaic convoluted English, and left me weirdly nostalgic because anything about Jesus reminds me of my old Roman Catholic school.
The plot of the book is the Biblical tale of Jesus through the eyes of an affluent Israelite of the house of Hur in Jerusalem. Since it follows the title character and his family, the life story of Christ is curtailed and, in the greater part, given indirect treatment through the words of the central characters. All His miracles are presented as hearsay, and post-Calvary, we see no more of Him: the story continues with an account of the Hur and his people. The book deviates somewhat from the chronology of the Bible and, in order to execute the change of perspective, Wallace fleshes out some lesser characters and smaller incidents using his creativity and, reportedly, his historical research. Ben-Hur is more a story of Christ's effect on people than one of Christ Himself. Even the events at Calvary are written from a viewer's perspective. Like all period pieces, Ben-Hur is also a window to the times; as a 21st century reader, however, I found in it a second, much smaller window to the author's times (the late 19th century) as well -- there are instances where the author compares the Biblical people and places to 'modern times', which made me compare his 'modern' to mine.
Through the course of the story, the writer's voice is always present, sometimes addressing the reader directly and at other times consolidating the story with his commentary. Keeping with the style of his times, Wallace also breaks off from the narrative to comment on the instances of human emotion and folly, thus taking the reader deep into the social and philosophical implications of the book. Being the kind of reader who thinks, I liked that aspect, and was further convinced of Wallace's mastery of the pen when I found him depicting the most complex emotions and human interactions with surprising ease and exactness. On the other hand, he handles relatively simple emotions like separation and mistrust with impressive depth of understanding. He also maintains a very tight grip on the narrative and, intentionally or otherwise, clues for the twists to come are present in the leading chapters. However, as much as I enjoy predicting the course of thrillers, the twist involving the second betrayal suffered by Ben-Hur felt a bit too obvious. Moderately seasoned readers, I feel, will be able to see through one of the early devices of the betrayal, and even figure out where the loyalty of the betrayer is shifted. Also, I would have liked to see a bit more of the Magi in the end, given their importance in the early chapters. Overall, though, Ben-Hur is a gripping read, and the conclusion felt perfect for Wallace's target reader, who is not a scholar but an ordinary person with a commoner's affinity to warmth, hope and faith. I would recommend it for the thrill and the classic value. Readers unaccustomed to period pieces are warned, however, to be prepared for long-winded language and some blatant social injustices which are portrayed as normal, since they were typical in those times (and are less blatant now. Ahem.)
The introduction  to the book says that the psychological impact of the book on Lew Wallace himself was a strengthening of his Christian faith, which may serve as an added incentive to the Christian readers among you. Not being a Christian myself, and having a limited knowledge of Christ, my takeaway from the book is of a socio-political nature. I was reminded, yet again, that our claims for liberation are, more often than not, cloaked demands for the power to enslave others, and that pride without freedom is more favourable to us humans than freedom with acceptance. For all our advancement, we still feel special not in our own right but by denigrating others: just look at modern politics and you will find parallels to the shock felt by the Israelites when Jesus treated the Gentiles as equal to them. The conquering Romans would naturally have political enmity against a King of the Jews, but the Israelites rejected their much-awaited prophesied Messiah when He loved, blessed and healed people of all races, thus depriving them of the honour of calling the Saviour their own and dashing their hopes of Judaean supremacy. They hated Him for loving without condition, for not sharing their racial pride, for not being partial to their race -- which we continue to do today. He was laughed at because, instead of a royal air, he carried himself with humility, in a commoner's garb -- and even today we respond better to pomp and show: not quality, not deed, not character. Given the circumstances, then and now, I have immense respect for anyone who tried to make a difference. Which is why, though I'm not Christian, I have always maintained that Jesus, Son of God or not, Jesus, the flesh-and-blood man, was pretty damn awesome, and reading Wallace's book has strengthened my conviction in His awesomeness.

Title courtesy: The Voice of the Rain by Walt Whitman. Image courtesy: Book Shack

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