Thursday, 2 April 2009
Paying for the sins of the father
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero
It might seem an unlikely subject for a communist and atheist to tackle, but Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago's Gospel According to Jesus Christ is an extraordinary novel of great power and beauty.
He takes the traditional gospel stories of Jesus, and with a remarkably few twists, ensures that the story that is so familiar takes on a whole new meaning and freshness.
This is a Jesus who is tormented by guilt at having survived the massacre of the innocents; who suffers nightmares where his Earthly father, Joseph, comes to kill him. His relationships with his family – particularly after Joseph's heart-rending death – are far from easy. And his salvation, as a human being, comes through his love affair with Mary Magdalene.
But he is trapped by God's desire to win followers from the other gods. And when he demands to know what will happen as a result of his martyrdom, God (being omniscient) is able to recite a list of some of those who will be martyred after him, including his friends the disciples.
God acknowledges that there will be wars and the Crusades and the Inquisition – and much, much more misery as people try to keep themselves free from God's definition of sin.
But when the Devil offers to stop making mischief and become God's most dutiful and faithful follower, if only God will simply allow people to come to Him, thus avoiding the carnage and misery to come, God refuses.
He explains to His son that He cannot exist without the Devil – without sin, without guilt and without pain. And He certainly cannot build an even bigger empire of followers without these things.
Saramago's God is based soundly on the Bible and his point, ultimately, is that the god of Judeo-Christian tradition is cruel, selfish and power-crazy. Jesus does not die for our sins – he dies for the sins of the father, the sins of God.
Because God, if He is truly God, could do things differently – God does not have to make people suffer. But he chooses to do so, having created sin and guilt in the first place.
The author doesn't challenge the idea of the existence of a god: what he does is to examine the nature of the god of the dominant religious tradition in Western culture. And the result is not a nice or comforting or loving portrait.
Saramago's Jesus, however, is a compassionate and humane man, but flawed and troubled too.
Like Jesus and many others, Judus Iscariot is simply a pawn in God's hands. There are no choices – the choices have been made for them.
And if that is the case, then there are no choices for the Devil either – he is simply another of the pieces on God's chessboard, as he plays with the toys that He has created.
The novel has been controversial. Published in 1991, the Portuguese ministry of culture blocked its inclusion on a European literary prize list after it offended some Christians.
Seeing that as an act of censorship, Saramago packed his bags and went to live in Spain.
The prose is not easy to read. Saramago doesn't bother with much conventional punctuation – there are no speech marks, and speeches are run on, one after another, on the same line. So concentration is essential. But there is a beauty and a sense of the poetic to this novel. And that, combined with the story itself, makes it an unforgettable read: challenging, humane and very moving indeed.