Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

My rating:

Is not his the law, Eye for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot? Oh, in all these years I have dreamed of vengeance, and prayed and provided for it, and gathered patience from the growing of my store, thinking and promising, as the Lord liveth, it will one day buy me punishment of the wrong-doers?

Who's in for a revenge tale set in the first century a.C.?

Ben-Hur is a man who's perfectly happy. He has a mother and a sister who love him, and he's friends with a Roman, and that puts him in a position of privilege. All is well until one day he killed a Roman governor. It was an accident, but no one believes him. He's desperate, yet he can do nothing.

But wait, he has a friend – Messalla - who can help him. Too bad he betrays him and sends him to the galleys in a life sentence.

Obviously, Ben-Hur is angry. His life has been completely ruined. He will never get to see his family again because the passage to the galleys is a one-way ticket.

By some turns of events – call them fate or luck - the ship in which he worked sank and he managed to get out and save a governor. Saving that governor gained him a great price: Fortune. Now, with money, his hatred turns to a desire of revenge and he's willing to make Messalla pay for what he did.

All of the above may make the book sound like some epic tale of revenge, perhaps as epic as The Count of Monte Cristo. Well, it wasn't.

Let me tell you how the book starts: Part 1 of the book is a complete recollection of Jesus' birth. It's even more detailed than in the Bible. Well, to be honest, that would not have been so bad if it weren't for the writing.

The writing have me many, many headaches. It was T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. Look at this passage, for example:

A moment they looked at each other; then they embraced—that is, each threw his right arm over the other’s shoulder, and the left round the side, placing his chin first upon the left, then upon the right breast.

Do you think it's necessary that amount of detail? I mean, I understand they hugged, but I need not a description of how a hug is. That's excessive. Now imagine 500 pages of descriptions like those. A nightmare, isn't it?

Not only is the writing like that. The author also assumes the reader is stupid. I couldn't find the quote, but there's a line at the beginning in which the author basically says: “I know you don't know anything about history, so I'll tell you something: Before Jesus was born, time was not measured by how many years had passed since his birth. That's because he didn't exist yet.”

Isn't it a little obvious? If the man who's used as reference for measuring years has not been born yet, how can you use his birth as reference? It's called logic, Mr. Wallace. You don't need to be an historian to know that.

Also, the writing was bland, boring and stiff. Here's your proof:

“What has happened? What does it all mean?” she asked, in sudden alarm.

“I have killed the Roman governor. The tile fell upon him.”

Doesn't it feel a little... lacking of emotion? I mean, if you kill someone important by accident, would you be so calm? Ben-Hur is supposed to be afraid, yet that passage doesn't make him sound like that. If anything, he sounds bored, like “Hey, look, the tile fell upon the Roman governor and I killed him! Bah, YOLO. Who cares?”

There's this one too:

Malluch looked into Ben-Hur’s face for a hint of meaning, but saw, instead, two bright-red spots, one on each cheek, and in his eyes traces of what might have been repressed tears (...)

No emotions, right?

Then, Wallace kept addressing the readers. I don't have a problem with that, but in this case, I hated it. Why? Because he did it in almost every page. I'm going to show you the ones I had enough patience to look for:

The reader who recollects the history of Balthasar as given by himself at the meeting in the desert will understand the effect of Ben-Hur’s assertion of disinterestedness upon that worthy.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Show me Ben-Hur is disinterested. I want to feel him disinterested. I don't want you telling me. Here's an advice for you, Mr. Wallace: Show, not tell.

He fell to thinking; and even the reader will say he was having a vision of the woman, and that it was more welcome than that of Esther, if only because it stayed longer with him (...)

No, you cannot tell what I was thinking at that moment. In fact, when I read that line I was wondering what the dinner was going to be.

If the reader will take a map of Greece and the AEgean, he will notice the island of Euboea lying along the classic coast like a rampart against Asia, leaving a channel between it and the continent quite a hundred and twenty miles in length, and scarcely an average of eight in width.

See? I was so damn tired of it after 20 pages! And this block has more than five. Hundred. Pages!

There's also the religious plot. I thought it would not bother me, but in the end, it did. I'll show you why:

Exhibit A: “Who's Jesus?”

Where was the Child then?
And what was his mission?

Yes, Wallace made a big mystery about Jesus. I said he assumes the reader is stupid. Here's one example of that: He tries to thrill the reader into the mystery as to who the Mesiah is. Please, you don't have to be Catholic to know who's the great Mesiah in that religion. Everyone knows that!

Exhibit B: “Believe in God, or else you go to Hell.”

This was not a revenge tale. This was a redemption tale. I knew that from the beginning because I've watched the movie thousands of times (and the name of the book makes it obvious) and I know the story as I know my house, so I didn't expect to get angry at that. What got me was that basically, the message Wallace gives you is the one I wrote as exhibit B: If you don't pray, then you're a bad person. We all know that's not necessarily true. But I'll stop talking about that here.

At the beginning of this review, I said this could have been EPIC. And indeed, it had all the chances of being so; I mean, it's a REVENGE tale. I love those, so I was expecting to like this, but what I got was an overdose of BOREDOM. Really, you could change the name of the book to "Ben-Dull: A Tale of Tediousness".

In the end, this book was bad. I do not understand why it has such a high average rating (and with more than 40 thousand rates). I don't get very suspicious about high ratings when we're talking about classics, but this book has made me learn the lesson: That a book is a classic doesn't mean you can trust the hype.

Oh, and may I tell you something else? The movie was better.

The movie better than the book. Can you believe it? No, of course you can't. It's always the book better than the movie, but trust me, that's not the case with this book.

Now, pay attention to the following quote. It's the ending paragraph of the book:

If any of my readers, visiting Rome, will make the short journey to the Catacomb of San Calixto, which is more ancient than that of San Sebastiano, he will see what became of the fortune of Ben-Hur, and give him thanks. Out of that vast tomb Christianity issued to supersede the Caesars.

If you go there, make sure you thank Ben-Hur, or else, Wallace can get angry.

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