Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mary of Nazareth by Marek Halter

After penning a popular trilogy about lesser known women from the Old Testament (Sarah, Zipporah, Lilah), Marek Halter now turns his pen to the most famous biblical female of all--The Virgin Mary.

Halter spins a dramatic tale of a bold, spirited, temperamental, free-thinking, strong-willed young woman who sharply contrasts the pale and placid beauties artists have been painting for centuries to depict the beatific, serene Virgin. Halter's Miriam--she is called Mary only in the title of the book and in the final pages--lives in a time of crippling taxes, rampant poverty, and bloodshed during the reign of King Herod, a cruel and unjust monarch, who, wielding his might through his army of mercenaries and tax collectors brings great suffering to the Jewish people. The mercenaries regularly descend on Nazareth to pillage, burn, destroy, beat, rape, capture, and kill. During one such nighttime raid, young Miriam saves the life of Barabbas, a biblical version of Robin Hood who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

When Miriam's beloved carpenter father, Joachim, one of the kindest and gentlest men who ever lived, kills a soldier and wounds a tax collector during a skirmish in which he tries to defend an elderly woman trying to safeguard her most precious possession--a Hanukkah candlestick--he is sentenced to crucifixion. Ignoring the entreaties of her mother, Hannah, and their friends, Miriam travels to Sepphoris and seeks out Barabbas. Remembering the young girl who once saved his life, Barabbas arranges a daring nocturnal rescue and one of his most devoted followers, Obadiah, the young leader of a dirty, ragtag band of street-Arabs, snatches Joachim right off the cross.

Unable to return to Nazareth and resume their old lives, Miriam and Joachim join Barabbas to organize the oppressed people of Galilee in a rebellion against Herod and free Israel, once and for all, from the yoke of Rome. But negotiations break down when the leaders of the various sects (Zealots, Essenes, Sadduces, Pharisees) and Barabbas cannot agree. Out of the various candidates not one man emerges who is clearly capable of uniting and leading the Jewish people to freedom. And they part ways, agreeing only that they disagree. But before he goes, Joseph of Arimathea is greatly impressed by Miriam and her conviction that war is not the answer--violence and pain beget only more violence and pain--and arranges for her to study with the learned women in Magdala, where she acquires a lifelong friend, Mariamne (Mary Magdalene).

Two years later, Barabbas comes back into Miriam's life when he appears in Magdala with the mortally wounded Obadiah. They journey to Damascus to seek the aid of Joseph of Arimathea, a renowned healer and leader of the Essene brotherhood, but arrive too late. Obadiah dies in Miriam's arms, after confessing his love for her and promising to be her angel. Indeed, he never truly leaves her; according to Miriam, he begins to visit her in visions, bringing her comfort, and jokingly calling himself her "little husband." Concerned friends begin to suspect that losing Obadiah has caused Miriam and her sanity to part company.

The final chapters cover Miriam's return to Nazareth and her rather atypical pregnancy and the reactions of her family, friends, and the villagers. The book ends rather abruptly and, to my mind, unsatisfyingly. In an epilogue that, in my opinion, has a tacked on feel, the author explains that while visiting Warsaw he met a woman named Maria, who saved 2,000 Jewish children from the Nazis, and had a son of her own named Jesus who perished in the holocaust. Before they parted, this Maria gave Mr. Halter a scroll, handed down for generations, called "The Gospel of Mary," and it is with this gospel, written in Miriam's own words, that Mr. Halter ends his novel.

Based on other reviews I have seen for this book, many readers have been offended by it, but I was not one of them, perhaps because I am a very open-minded person and I accept fiction as fiction regardless of the genre and amount of facts mixed in. To me, this was just another novel to pass the time, I found it neither shocking or especially memorable; I liked the author's earlier novel "Sarah" much better. I found "Mary of Nazareth" to be a quick and interesting read, not at all ponderous or pushy, but ultimately lackluster. Besides the abrupt ending, the one glaring fault I did find was the usage of some very modern words, such as "chat" and "kid" and expressions like "for sure" that just seem really awkward and out of place in a biblical novel; a ragamuffin boy commenting on Joachim's ordeal on the cross observes "a whole day up there must really knock you out." However, as most of these "slips" come from the mouth of Obadiah, the leader of a gang of roving street-urchins, I am guessing this may be intentional on either the author's or translator's part, to perhaps make the character seem more like his modern-day counterparts.

1 comment:

Marie Burton said...

Interesting.. I read Popescu's recent Girl Mary, and I had hoped for more of a connection to Mary. It was really more about Pontius Pilate, so in that regard I was disappointed.
Despite the criticisms, I think I would venture to read this book given the chance.