Monday, October 3, 2011
Jose Saramago's "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ": Book Review
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)