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[294] The Gospel According to Jesus Christ – Jose Saramago

Tribute to Jose Saramago (1922-2010)

I mourn the passing of one of my favorite novelists, Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who died on June 18 at the age of 87. A provocative thinker and inimitable stylist, Saramago often polarized public opinion. His works, which often feature ordinary people in extraordinary situations, will always have a special place in me. Too bad he won’t be like one of his immortal characters in Death with Interruptions. I hereby honor him with a previously unreleased review of his novel.

Saramago deftly embraces historical facts, myth and reality and juggles them in this extraordinarily fictitious account of Jesus Christ. The novel is an in-depth psychological portrait of a savior who possesses a touch of humanity so much more substantial than the Bible claims. Jesus who is at once the Son of God, the beginning and the end, men’s destiny, and a young man of the earth is an interweaving of letters, irony, spirituality, irreverence, humanity, and foible.

The novel hinges on the fact that Jesus’ father, Joseph of Nazareth, out of cowardice and selfishness of the heart, failed to alert the parents that King Herod had issued a decree to kill boys under the age of 3. He could have spared the lives of 27 children had he spoken up. Joseph felt the scruple of running off to save his own son but had forfeited the lives of others. The guilt he felt was exactly guilt a man may feel without having sinned or committed the actual crime himself. It was the sin of omission.

To assuage his remorse that incessantly plagued him, Joseph, as he truly believed he was acting out of his own accord and obeying God’s will, made strenuous effort to beget more and more children to compensate for the 27 lives. When Jesus learned about Joseph’s crime, Jesus felt poignant for his father but asserted that his father was to blame for the deaths of innocent children. Joseph’s sin was illustrated to full actuality as Jesus envisaged infants dying in perfect innocence and parents who had done nothing wrong. Jesus was embittered and broken at the fact that never was a man more guilty than his own father, who had sinned to save his life.

Joseph’s death, which was rather dramatic and undeserving, bore the scruple of his own conscience and arose the question of what awaited him after death. Would it be possible than everything ended with death? What would happen to the life’s sorrow and sufferings, especially the sufferings right before the last breath? What about the memory if time is such an undulating surface than can only be accessed by memory, would memory of such suffering linger at least for a short period of time? Saramago has repeatedly made claims to explore the notion of after-death and its correlation to human existence throughout the novel.

Jesus under Saramago’s pen is not as perfect, impure, and righteous as the Bible portraits him to be. One sees that the savior succumbs to temptation, to not receiving the cup of death, to choose to remain on earth and not to be crowned with glory. The most provocative and controversial aspect of the book is when Jesus intervened the stoning of an adulteress, which brought him to awareness that he was living in sin with Mary Magdalene, and thus living in defiance to God’s will. The sin of adultery (sexual immorality as the Bible claims) brought Jesus into open conflict with the observed law.

The book is not deprived of interesting dialogues in spite of the serious overtones of theology. My favorite is the conversation in which the Devil pleaded with God to admit him into the kingdom. God curtly denied the request asserting than the good God represented would cease to exist without the evil Devil represented. In regard to the meaning of human existence and the pursuit of holiness, Saramago does leave us with an enlightening thought (with such sober dignity) that the soul, in order to be able to boast of a clean and blameless body, has burdened itself with sadness, envy and impurity.

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18 Responses

  1. I found out the news this morning and I have been in a bit of a sad funk about it all day. He lived a long life, but still, what a loss!

    • I’m anxiously waiting for his last book, Elephant’s Journey, to come out. But I’m feeling the dilemma that I don’t want to read it so soon because there will be no more of his works. :(

  2. I’ve never read any his work so can’t mourn his passing in quite the same way. But I do understand that a great writer has been lost and your post makes me know that I must get around to reading him soon.

    • Saramago has quite an esoteric body of works. His most popular book is probably Blindness, which was made into a movie with Julian Moore. The sequel to that was titled Seeing. He is known for (other than his obsessive use of commas) putting the most ordinary characters in an unthinkable situation and examine the consequences in all possible social angle.

  3. I’m sad to learn of Saramago’s death. He is one of my favourite authors. I haven’t read The Gospel according to Jesus Christ yet, but your lovely tribute has made me want to seek out a copy right now.

  4. may his soul rest in peace. i am waiting for my master’s thesis defence on José saramago’s three novels blindness, seeing and the cave. i will do it in the end of the month. i hope it will be a tribute for this great novelist who made me feel what he said: “the pain of writing and the joy of having written”. i want his fans to remember one of his best quotes in the cave: ” it is true that however thick and black the clouds over our heads, the sky above is permanently blue”.

  5. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is the most touching portrayal of Jesus in a novel. In fact, the novel actual endears Jesus to me even more than what the Bible says. Saramago was one of my favorite novelists too. Great loss…

    • The portrait of Jesus in the book is very human, almost stripped him off his divine quality, which is exactly what infuriates the churches.

  6. I think that so long as we’re always reading and talking about his writing, Saramago will never truly be dead. It’s a shame there won’t be more books from him (save for the one being published this September), but at least he’s left us a wonderful back catalog to provide us with enrichment and enjoyment!

    • I totally agree with you. He has left behind a body of very memorable and thoughtful works which I will continue to reflect and re-read over the years. The latest (and also the last) novel is scheduled to come out this fall—The Elephant’s Journey.

  7. One of my favorites as well, but have not yet read this one. Funny how the death of a great author can prompt so many to take up their books. In this case, that is a very good thing.

  8. usually people start reading the works of a writer after his death. but iam so happy bc Saramago had many fans when he was alive and now i guess his fans will be pretty numerous. i do recommend reading his novel “the cave” bc it is fabulous and quite inspiring. thank you Matthew for your intelligent and insightful comments :))

  9. I feel happy that Saramago, whom I greatly appreciate, is loved by many readers around the world. And that is mostly because his plots are universal and his style, oral-like, is simply fascinating. I’m Portuguese and now I feel deeply sorry, not only because I can’t count on him anymore with new books, but also because the world has just lost a greatest novelist that used to make his readers feel intelligent because he continuously invited us to think together! I’ll miss him alot…

  10. I’ve just noticed that Matthew has referred The Elephant’s Journey as Saramago’s latest novel. Actually his last novel, once again a masterpiece, is Cain. He resums the Bible problematic and not surprisingly this one also caused great trouble with catholic zealots…poor things!

  11. [...] notorious author Josse Saramago who died in June. Saramago is the author of such profane works as “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” a sacrilegious and crudely-written attack on the great traditions of Christian humanism. Saramago, [...]

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