Every Easter, this text returns to haunt me. Written by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy in 1917, it’s an anthem of moral individualism: a reminder that liberty and moral integrity are gifted to the individual – and that the collective can only corrupt them.
Although I’ve already posted this piece last Easter, I thought it had a place on this blog, too. The translation from Hungarian is mine, although I took hints from another, heavily abridged version.
For those of you who read Hungarian, here is the original: http://www.szepi.hu/irodalom/kedvenc/kt_030.html
It’s only fitting that I post this on Good Friday – but this is my Easter greeting, too: let us all have a happy time, but not an oblivious one.
by Frigyes Karinthy
On the third day, at dusk, he stepped out of the tomb, and quietly began to walk down the road. Black smoke was rising from the ruins, and surrounded him. At the bottom of a dry ditch, he found the first of those who, in front of Pilate’s house, had shouted the name of Barabbas. The wretched man was wailing at the red fumes with a blackened tongue.
He stopped in front of the man, and said:
“Here I am.”
The man looked up at him, and began to cry.
“Rabbi! Rabbi!” he sobbed.
The Master continued gently.
“Do not cry. Rise and come with me. For I shall go back to Jerusalem, to Pilate’s house, and request a new verdict for myself and for you, who chose Barabbas, and to whom Barabbas has done all this.”
The wretched man staggered to his feet, and grabbed the robes of the other.
“Master!” he cried, muffled by tears, “o Master, I am coming! Tell me how I can save myself! Tell me what to do, what to say!”
“You must say nothing” he said softly, “but the thing you should have said when Pilate stood on the balcony and asked you all: ‘Now whom shall I release, Barabbas the murderer, or the Nazarene?’”
“What a fool I was!” cried the wretched man, hitting his head, “what a fool I was to shout Barabbas! Barabbas who did all this to me!”
“It is well now” the Master continued gently, “come now with me to Pilate’s house. Do not worry. Do not look to anyone but me, and when I give the sign, cry out with all your heart and all your breath: ‘The Nazarene!’ as if you were crying ‘Give me my life!’”
The wretched man then followed him.
And they found another wretched man along the road. From him Barabbas took his house, his wife and child, and had his eyes put out.
And he touched this wretched man in the forehead, and said:
“It is I. Come with me to Jerusalem, and when I touch you with my hand, cry out: ‘The Nazarene!’, as if you were crying ‘My house! My child! My eyes!’”
The wretched man began to cry, and followed him.
And they came upon a third one, whose hands and legs were bound and tied to his neck. Barabbas had pushed him face down in the mud full of critters and worms.
He walked to the third wretched man, untied his bonds, and said:
“I know you. You were the poet who sang the ecstatic ascent of the soul. Come with me, and when I give the sign, cry out: ‘The Nazarene’, as if you were crying ‘Freedom! The freedom of soul and thought!’”
The wretched man kissed the Master’s sandal, with eyes begging, for his mouth was still full of mud.
And they walked on, and more and more crippled and miserable people joined them, all ruined by Barabbas. And every one of them, one by one, begged him to give the sign to cry out ‘The Nazarene’ as if they were crying ‘Peace! Peace! Peace on earth!’”
At dark they reached Jerusalem, and came up on Pilate’s house.
Pilate was sitting on the balcony, having his dinner with Barabbas the murderer.
They were fat and their faces were glittering as they sat there, drinking heavy wine and eating rare delicacies from golden plates. Their scarlet mantles were glowing in the dark.
The Nazarene, leading the crowd, walked up to the balcony, lifted his pierced hands, and gently said:
“Pilate, the feast of Passover is still here. It is the law and the custom of the land that one of the prisoners must be set free as the people demand. The people demanded Barabbas, and I was crucified – but I had to return from my dead, seeing as the people did not know what they were doing. This crowd that followed me now knows Barabbas, and demands a new verdict. Ask them once again as written in our laws.”
Pilate thought for a while, then shrugged, walked to the edge of the balcony, took in the crowd with some surprise, and then said:
“Whom shall I release now, Barabbas or the Nazarene?”
And then he gave the sign.
And there was a roar, and the crowd shouted like thunder.
And the crowd thundered: “Barabbas!”
And then they looked at each other in a fright, because one by one they cried “The Nazarene!”
The Master turned pale, and looked at the people.
And he recognized the face of each of them, every single one, but the multitude of faces melted into one in the dusk, one enormous head, with a foolish, evil, hideous grin, bloodshot eyes, foul liquid leaking from the mouth, and this head bellowed “Barabbas!” as if it was shouting “Death! Death! Death!”
Pilate, embarrassed, lowered his eyes and said: “You see…”
He nodded, and then quietly walked up the stairs, holding out his arms for the hangman to bind them.