The Gospel According to Lazarus review – miraculous page-turner

In this engaging Portuguese bestseller, Richard Zimler reimagines events up to the crucifixion with Lazarus at its heart

One of a dwindling number of Christian stories with continuing and widespread resonance in our secular, sceptical times is that of Lazarus. This ordinary man cheats the inevitability of death because four days after he has passed away, his friend Jesus goes into his tomb in the town of Bethany and raises him back to life.

For generations of Christians, it is a tale that has been taken as a forerunner of Jesus’s own resurrection and proof of his divine power. But more recent interpreters, including Nick Cave in his 2008 song Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, and David Bowie in his last-ever single, Lazarus, have adapted it to muse on a fluid boundary between mortality and immortality.

Grist to their mill is the failure of the New Testament to provide much supporting detail about Lazarus, thus inviting reworking and expansion. The Gospel of John, moreover, where it appears, gives no clue as to what happens next to Lazarus once he is back in the land of the living. Was he overjoyed and newly wise as he embraced his second chance?

That, at least, is what I always assumed listening to the passage read aloud from the pulpit in the churches of my youth, a clear case of lucky Lazarus.

Then Colm Tóibín’s 2012 novella The Testament of Mary, a reworking of the story of Jesus’s mother, came along and provided an altogether darker sequel. It has Lazarus reborn, yes, but for ever trapped in a limbo of living death, confined to a darkened room, unable to communicate and shunned by those around him as an omen of ill fortune. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Somewhere in the middle comes Richard Zimler’s new novel The Gospel According to Lazarus, fresh from being a number one bestseller in the American author’s adopted homeland of Portugal. Zimler, five times nominated for the prestigious International Dublin literary award, has form in combining historical and theological speculation with high-end literary thrillers, as in his celebrated 1996 novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.

This time round, he provides just enough structure from the familiar story to reassure readers – Lazarus’s squabbling sisters Martha and Mary forever in dispute, while the family home is full of various apostles – but then he adds his own details. Most significant is the intimate relationship, dating all the way back to childhood, between Yeshua (the Hebrew for Jesus) and Lazarus. Aged eight, Lazarus had saved Yeshua from drowning. This prequel provides both a neat symmetry to Yeshua returning the favour and a point of departure – one rescue is earthbound, the second beyond the powers of humankind.

Zimler then adds flesh to the bones of Lazarus’s second incarnation by inserting him into every twist and turn of the story of the last week of Jesus’s life in Jerusalem, up to and including his crucifixion. The implicit invitation throughout is to compare and contrast what Lazarus witnesses with how history – shaped by the churches – has remade events.

Yet this is no attack on institutional Christianity, but, rather, a reverent and subtle meditation on the ways in which the dead can interact with the living – by the power of their example, via voices heard only in the heads of those who remember them, as a counterpoint to the memories that others hold of them. It is also a very human tale of rivalry, betrayal, power-grabbing, sacrifice and even of a (very lightly worn) homoerotic bond between Yeshua and Lazarus. Can love transcend death?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this brave and engaging novel, though, is that Zimler manages to make the best-known narrative in western culture a page-turner. I simply had to keep going to the very end in order to know on earth what would happen.

Peter Stanford’s Angels: A Visible and Invisible History is published by Hodder (£20)

The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler is published by Peter Owen (£14.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Peter Stanford

The GuardianTramp

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