A gospel according to Jesus Christ and Jose Saramago

Monday Book Review

April 25, 1994|By Richard Eder

The Gospel According To Jesus Christ. By Jose Saramago. Translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. Harcourt Brace. $23.95. 384 pages.

THE GOSPEL according to Jose Saramago begins with the author contemplating a painting of the Crucifixion and, in a kind of mock gravity, subverting its iconography. Which of the figures is Mary Magdalene? Surely, the one with the plunging neckline; on the other hand, one woman is blond. There is, after all "the popular belief that women with blond hair, whether it be natural or dyed, are the most effective instruments of sin."

Then there are the two thieves. Why should one be called "the good thief," simply because he repented? Surely the honest thief is the one "who did not pretend to believe that sudden repentance suffices to redeem a whole life of evil." Most important, there is the receding figure of a man looking back over his shoulder, and carrying a bucket and a sponge. Through two millennia he has been reviled for offering vinegar to a thirsting Jesus. But in those days, vinegar and water was a recognized thirst quencher, Mr. Saramago insists, and he continues:

"The man walks away, does not wait for the end, he did all he could to relive the mortal thirst of the three condemned men, making no distinction between Jesus and the thieves, because these are things of this earth, which will persist on this earth, and from them will be written the only possible history."

Thus the tone that launches Mr. Saramago's New Testament reworking. It is a special blend of irony and innocence, of playfulness and melancholy; a disputatiousness that mocks not only received doctrine but its own mockery as well. It marks Mr. Saramago, Portugal's most distinguished living writer, as it marked his literary predecessors, Eca de Queiroz and Machado de Assis. It sounds a note as rooted in Portugal's character as Hemingway's clipped bark or Whitman's unclipped yawp are in America's.

It is the voice of a country whose long-departed imperial unboundedness left it bound in a misty veil that has kept it oddly out of modern history. No dialectical confrontations for Portugal; no French or Russian Revolution nor even a Spanish-style civil war. At most the oddly pleasant Revolution of Carnations in the early '70s that slipped away the remains of the Salazar dictatorship much as a sleeper half-awakens to shrug off an unneeded blanket. When Germany, Italy and Spain were tyrannized by uniformed dictators, Portugal was tyrannized by a professor of economics. Imagine John Kenneth Galbraith ruling the United States for 40 years with the aid of a ubiquitous, dark-suited or -- more likely -- tweedy secret police.

"The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" is likewise oddly out of its time. It is a skeptical, paradox-laden fiction about the meaning of Christ's incarnation, of God and the Devil, of good and evil, and of the grounds and purposes of human destiny. Following the bewildered wanderings of St. Joseph -- around whom God and Satan buzz like invisible gnats -- and the even more bewildered wanderings of a highly irritated Jesus, it has its grand climax in a boat on the Sea of Galilee where God, Satan and Jesus sit for 40 days in the fog and argue.

It is the kind of bravura cascade of philosophical quizzicality and ingenious reversals that were featured a century or so ago in such varied writings as the Grand Inquisitor scene in "The Brothers Karamazov," Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger" and Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell." It is not much practiced nowadays -- C.S. Lewis's "Screwtape Letters" was 50 years ago -- but perhaps that is a Portuguese writer's privilege. Mr. Saramago is fully conscious of his national voice; at one point, referring to 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans after a rebellion, he observes that, if placed a mile apart, the crosses could circle Portugal, "which is not large."

The Nativity part of the story is told with a lovely, displaced tenderness that focuses on Joseph rather than Mary. The young carpenter awakes in their hut -- "an oil lamp is burning, but its flickering flame, like a small, luminous almond, barely impinges on the darkness" -- goes outdoors to urinate, sees the sky blaze oddly, is aroused and returns to make love to his wife. In Mr. Saramago's "Gospel," which caused considerable scandal in Portugal, not only is Mary not a virgin but the conception of Jesus is a commingling of her husband's seed with God's. Mr. Saramago's Jesus is fully sexual; later he will become, in effect, Mary Magdalene's husband.

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