Thu, Jun 15, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Alluring meanderings of an eccentric mind

David Barton’s latest writing features paintings by the author in what our reviewer calls an intellectual comic-strip journey through the psychotic imagination of Taiwan’s expat Samuel Beckett

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

LAZAR AND LEPER: The Book of Time, by David Barton.

Many readers will remember David Barton as beginning an interview with the Taipei Times by recounting how in a bar a young Taiwanese held the tip of a knife between his ribs and Barton thought, “Go on then, are you going to push it in or aren’t you?” [page 18 Taipei Times, Nov. 25, 2007].

This would have been remarkable enough for any expatriate involved in a drunken brawl, but became truly sensational when you learned that Barton was a professor of literature at Taiwan’s National Central University.

The great American critic Harold Bloom once remarked that he didn’t understand a word of the French poet Mallarme (mentioned in Lazar and Leper, Barton’s new publication), but would continue reading him until the day he died. Difficulty in literature, in other words, doesn’t necessarily stand in the way of certain kinds of enjoyment.

Lazar and Leper is certainly difficult in some aspects. It consists of a series of dialogues between the two named characters while playing a game of cards. These are illustrated by paintings by Barton, ostensibly relating to the dialogue, on the opposite page. There are 18 such dialogues and paintings, and the whole book only consists of 39 pages.

The names Lazar and Leper are, of course, related. A “lazar-house” in medieval England was somewhere where lepers (sufferers from leprosy, then common in Europe) were treated and/or incarcerated. And indeed the two characters, always dressed differently in the different paintings, often seem to be wearing what could be medieval costumes.

But Lazar is also Lazarus, the man in the New Testament’s Gospel According to St. John, who Jesus raised from the dead. The second dialogue contains the phrase “because Lazar had died so often”, though in a later dialogue Lazar says “I wish I could die.”

Performance Notes:

LAZAR AND LEPER: The Book of Time

By David Barton

39 pages

Kaun Tang International Publications Ltd

softback: Taiwan

At the end of the book is a list of “Messiahs and Martyrs.” Among these, alongside Caravaggio (who painted The Raising of Lazarus in around 1609) and Jesus and Wotan, clearly seen as comparable gods in a neo-Nietzschean system (see below), come Vladimir and Estragon. These are the names of the two central figures is Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, and it’s clear Lazar and Leper owe something to these forebears. Both pairs of figures await the passing of time, and debate its meaning, without coming to any very obvious conclusions.

If this book looks to Waiting for Godot as a model, it isn’t the first to do so. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was another. And Godot itself owed something to Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty, so there’s something of a tradition operating here.

Other names in the list are more enigmatic, not to say bizarre. They include “US Naval Servicemen,” “NASA” and “Korean Comfort Women.” Just David Barton’s little jokes, perhaps, something that his earlier novels, Teaching Inghelish in Taiwan and Saskatchewan, might well have prepared us for.

Central to Lazar and Leper is Frederick Nietzsche’s concept of recurring time, the idea that history goes in cycles and the same sort of phenomena repeat themselves. Thus, with reference to the giant stone carvings on Easter Island, the Moai, Lazar says “There are as many messiahs as there are Moai on Easter Island” which is followed by “New messiah, new name. They always arrive borne by first light and shine gloriously until they cool off and are changed into stone.”

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