Image Credit: Vintage Publishing, 1999
‘An odd character’, Umberto Eco writes fondly of José Saramago in a foreword to the journal Saramago wrote in the final year of his life, ‘and perhaps he actually infuriates readers on purpose.’ This sentiment may be true, reflecting Saramago’s infamous reputation for his criticism of the Catholic Church and his resolute, lifelong dedication to communism. Before winning the Nobel Prize in 1998, Saramago had already gone into voluntary exile on the island of Lanzarote, after leaving his native Portugal following the backlash against his most controversial work 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.'
In this novel Saramago supposes a human version of Christ; one who struggles with psychological trauma, resists a tyrannical God, spends time living as a shepherd with Satan, and has an amorous relationship with Mary Magdalene. This, of course, caused a stir in Portugal and elsewhere. But the controversy didn’t stop Saramago, nor did it stop people from reading his books. Nevertheless, the reputation which he gained from this episode, and from numerous memorable cases of razor-tongued political invective, followed him throughout his career. From the first time I read Saramago at the age of fourteen, I have never thought of this man who wrote such beautiful things as someone embittered or spiteful, and I still don’t. His writing is captivating, in places magical, sometimes melancholy, enraged at times, but always, always deeply humane.
The Gospel begins with Joseph, who we meet immediately before the conception of Jesus. Through the eyes of this naive young carpenter, who is overawed by Yahweh and the universe he has created, we perceive the immense beauty of ostensibly everyday occurrences. For example, we see:
‘this mysterious colour which might just as easily be the beginning or the end of this world, floating and hovering over the Earth, a roof made up of thousands of tiny clouds which were almost touching each other, and scattered in all directions like the stones of the desert.’
This, in Saramago, is what a morning sky looks like.
What ensues in the first section of the novel is a magical-realist telling of the Nativity, where Gabriel appears to Joseph and Mary as a beggar who portends the birth of Christ with a mysterious bowl of shining earth. Saramago’s most startling intervention in this section of the plot is when Joseph, protecting the baby Jesus from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, neglects to tell other families of the imminent rampage. As a result, he is haunted for the rest of his life by traumatic, guilty nightmares, which Jesus then inherits—in one of Saramago’s darker representations of the human condition. As an adult Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, ‘I am forever dreaming my father is coming to kill me.’ Of course, it is impossible to overlook this foreshadowing motif as the novel progresses towards its inevitable conclusion.
Later, Jesus has a momentous meeting with God where he is informed of his destiny, and they discuss God’s plans and relations with humanity. There are some brilliant exchanges in this dialogue which tap into the novel’s most pertinent themes. Jesus says at one point, ‘Being God, You must know everything,’ to which God responds, ‘Up to a certain point [...] where it starts to become interesting to pretend that I know nothing.’ Or another moment, where Jesus is confused and asks God to speak more clearly, only to receive the reply, ‘It’s impossible,’ said God, for human words are like shadows, and shadows are incapable of explaining light and between shadows and light there is the opaque body from which words are born.’ The main point Saramago is making here, is that God cannot help humans; that he is something created out of the same ‘opaque body’ of which he speaks. He is playful, but carelessly and sadistically playful for the simple fact that he has nothing better to do than entertain himself with humankind, which will never understand him just as he will never understand it.
It seems that what is produced throughout this novel is a scenario in which God exists to prove that humanity does not need him. The magical version of logic that permeates the narrative shifts in its most majestic moments towards humanity, away from a God who is bemusing at the best of times, wicked and cunning at the worst. The messiah, meanwhile, resembles an everyday person—which for Saramago is potentially the most noble or the most terrible thing in the world.