Monday, October 3, 2011

Jose Saramago's "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ": Book Review

Reminiscent of the raw, magical, harsh parts of Mark's Gospel, this novel imagines the son of man, Jesus born of Joseph as he finds himself taken over by Christ, born of God the Father. Jesus hesitates to call himself God's Son, but a demon recognizes him, and his divine cover's blown, or revealed, to his followers. Saramago inverts the traditional accounts so we don't see the public ministry commence until sixty percent of the narrative has shown us the journey to Bethlehem, the "hidden years" in Nazareth, the death of Joseph on a cross by mistake during a Jewish uprising against the Romans, and the desert temptations powerfully conveyed as more understandable and less theatrical.

The lamb of God takes on great poignancy in its appearance, and "resigned to his virtue," the young Jesus ponders the voice of God heard as he submits to the divine commands to die as His Son so God can establish power over the whole world, to make all men love Him, rather than just the Jewish people. This forces Jesus into a compromise with his human side, and his tender relationship in the full sense of the word with a marvelously rendered Mary Magdalene deepens this accessible, modest, and slowly miracle-working figure as one we can recognize as one of us even as his transformation of fish and bread, waves and the possessed, angers fishermen and swineherders and causes ordinary folks to wonder who Jesus really is.

Sentences in Saramago's characteristic style, as in "Blindness" and his last work, related to this as a biblical take on God's demands and human reactions, "Cain," [see my blog review] prefer a headlong rush over paragraphed neatness. He forces you to get carried into his flow, and dialogue is subsumed within the long paragraphs that demand, therefore, careful attention.

This is a thoughtfully composed narrative, rich in detail. Saramago's narrator is omniscient, knows of Portugal, and comments wryly on what God chooses to remember and what He forgets about this world and its creatures. Over it all, "the indifference of emptiness" soars. Not even the narrator has it all figured out, about man's destiny and fate. In Palestine, on the edge of and in the desert, nature waits, remote from the living beings God claims to care for.

Brutality and poverty dominate the lives of the fishers and herders, the servants and beggars who populate the little villages, while the Temple rises in Jerusalem in a vividly rendered contrast of mercantile activity and priestly slaughter for the birds and animals killed for God. Jesus reacts to this as a compassionate boy, but his resistance to the system falters, and in a wonderful scene where he, Pastor the clever, skewed, devilish desert companion, and God Himself sit in a mist on the sea and discuss the big questions, Saramago demonstrates his ability to make such timeless concerns fresh.

Passages also leap out of Giovanni Pontiero's translation that arrest one's gaze. Jesus and Pastor debate back and forth in the compressed style rendered by Saramago: "Like my sheep I have no god. But sheep, at least, produce lambs for altars of the Lord. And I can assure you that their mothers would howl like wolves if they knew. Jesus turned pale and could think of no reply."

The story starts with the crucifixion and the beginning is a bit shaky, as it's hard to get pulled in to the story from a distancing narrative tone. But as the familiar tale goes back, it gains depth. Mary's bitterness at her son's reaction to her own supposed connivance in the slaughter of the holy innocents (this makes some sense in context of Jesus' knowledge secondhand, but gets teased out gradually), the debate in the Temple with the elders, the death of Joseph and the departure of Jesus for the desert, the way he finds out about what happened when Herod struck down the babies in Bethlehem, and his reaction to this haunting scene that drives him deeper into self-awareness--are all imagined intelligently,

You read this with an inverted sense of the gospel inspirations. Here, the previous stages to Jesus' ministry gain center stage, and his public life becomes almost secondary to his own struggle to comprehend his salvific role. A challenging representation of a sensitive and searching man who finds God speaking to him. claiming to infuse him with His own force, and ordering him to follow His will, this is accessible to anyone curious about a fresh perspective on Jesus from a very human perspective. However, if appropriately for a human telling, the book ends rather hastily and suddenly on the Cross, as if Saramago wanted to finally stop his imagination from weaving more out of the evangelical stories and the midrashic legends that may have inspired this depiction of the sacrifice of Jesus from a memorable, but ultimately enigmatic, compliance.  (Posted to Amazon US 8-16-11)


Tony Bailie said...

Wonder how this compares to Nikos Kazantzakis Last Temptation and Robert Graves King Jesus, neither of which I have read although have seen the film of the former and read a lot of Graves, including three biographies, and so have a fair idea of what his take was.
My favourite DH Lawrence short story is The Man Who Died which is told from the Pov of Jesus, who wakes up in the tomb after being taken from the cross too soon. He has a sexual encounter with a Mithran priestess.

Tony Bailie said...

Isis... not Mithras. I hate getting my pre-Christian pagan deities mixed up

Fionnchú said...

Tony, again, you are near me in reading. I considered "Last Temptation" (I liked the film) for vacation reading a few months ago but opted to listen to Jeremy Irons on audiotape dramatize wonderfully another old read of mine from way back, "Lolita," although "LT" was in my luggage alongside it. The translation of "Last T" dissuaded me, but I may give it a try. I liked "Man Who Died" when I had to read it in grad school, and I admit it'd slipped my mind until now. As for "King J," I tried a few pages and was daunted, decades ago, by its density, but you're right--perhaps it's ready for reconsideration. I am curious about Nikos K's reworking of "Saint Francis" too, given his feast yesterday as it happens.

I came across another (one of many) odd ones by Graves in the garage, "Where the North Wind Blows," which may be rarer even by Graves's exacting standards as to admirers; I got halfway into "Count Belisarius" and a few pages again into "I, Claudius," which I took on another vacation once but never got around to. Somehow, much as I love erudite historical/ religious revisionist fiction, Graves demands a lot of his reader, at least me. Without that classical public school education, we languish, eh?

Last weekend, however, I sat with three translations (Day-Lewis, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum) I dragged out of storage of the Aeneid, another big gap in my knowledge. I read the first chapter of each translation, and that's a great if time-consuming way to get the feel of the story, which although Romanly dour has verve and force in its style and diction. Very cinematic, lots of jump cuts.

Any recommendations as to your favorite works by Graves? (As for the "White Goddess," the amateur Celticist in me shrinks back at its findings, I warn you.) Keep your eye out via here and the NYJB for a novel mid-November about Mary Magdalen I review from a decidedly Celtic mash-up p-o-v.

Fionnchú said...

"Watch the North Wind Rise" was the Graves novel about a reversion to matriarchy and regression to a medieval-like world. I knew it wasn't "North Wind," but some echo of "Rock-a-Bye Baby" interfered with recollection, Tony. And I'd get Mithras mixed up with Isis in such a realm, likely, too.

Tony Bailie said...

I have actually read The White Goddess. I went through a Robert Graves phase about 12 years ago. Bascially he seems to have trawled the western cannon of literature and philosophy for evidence supporting his belief that ancient European society was matriarchal and goddess worshipping. Watch the North Wind Rise, which I had to source from a US bookstore, is a futurist vision of a return to a matriarchal society. Not a great novel but not bad. Claudius novels are probably his best and his WWI autobiography Goodbye to All That gives a good sense of time and place.
Martin Seymore Smith's opinionated biography is a good start for Graves, strong on poetic analysis and deciphering The White Goddess. Graves comes across as an appallingly arrogant but vulnerable man and his relationship with Laura Riding reminded me a bit of John and Yoko. Seymour Smith maintains that this relationship is key to TWG and understanding the Claudius novels.
The Magdalene-Celtic mix sounds interesting, I'll keep and eye out for it.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, MSS wrote, seemingly on his own a quarter-century ago, a massive one-volume "Reader's Guide to World Literature" I loved browsing in for hours. I heard his Graves bio's worthwhile, and thanks for reminding me; I did study "Goodbye" in a Brit history course and admired it. His poetry I admit not knowing much of, but maybe I'll try "Claudius" again!

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