“Having invented God”, Saramago writes “we immediately became his slaves”. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ is at once a visceral take on institutional Christianity and also an effort to provide insight into the “mysterious” acts of the Lord. Supratik Ray read this bold, bawdy and beautiful retelling of The New Testament and shares his stray thoughts…
Having been to a missionary school, I was introduced to the life and teachings of the Christ at quite an early age. Needless to say, I even had to study the entire Gospel over a period of three years. And largely as a result of the largely conservative reading that teachers provided us, my interpretation of the Bible remained likewise. Perhaps, a tad more than what was ideal.
On purely literary terms, the Bible had always fascinated me and over the roughly four and half years that I have taken up literary studies, I have more often than not found myself going back to the Bible for analysis and interpretations. Needless to say, I had never heard of Saramago when I had studied the Bible for the first time. I chanced upon the name when I was browsing through the departmental library at my college. I knew nothing about the author then, but the title of the book attracted me. I immediately decided to borrow it. A professor who glanced through the books, looked at me over the rims of his spectacles, scratched his head and asked me, “You took up Saramago?”
That in hindsight should have been my first clue. Saramago in an interview quiet ironically remarked, “About the holy book, I tend to say: read the Bible and you’ll lose your faith”
There is something peculiar about The Gospel according to Jesus Christ that separates it from Saramago’s other novels. When one starts reading the book, one has this uncanny feeling that he is reading something controversial, a sort of biographical memoir that had hitherto been hidden from him. The novel begins by recounting the “missing” years of Christ’s life i.e. from the age of 12 to 30. Saramago intricately carves out a life for the young Christ, filled with disillusionment, deaths and… devils. In a style quite reminiscent to that of the Jefferson Bible, Saramago’s retelling imagines Jesus as a mere mortal with no “superpowers”. But the greater controversy of the novel lies in the author establishing a sexual relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. Not only is Jesus explicitly “deflowered” through many pages with great incisive detail, but he also grows to enjoy sex. Something, as you realize, must not have gone down very well with the church. As the Portuguese biblical scholar, Capuchin Father Fernando Venturo had remarked, “The Bible can be read by somebody who has no faith, but it requires some intellectual honesty on the part of the reader,”
The novel may at times seem to have been half-heartedly written; I don’t know whether the original feels the same or something was lost in translation. Given the eloquence and the beauty of the Gospel, I was a bit disappointed with the rather ineloquent language the book was written in. I regretted not knowing Portuguese.
That, however, is only a minor blip in a novel focused on the question of faith. Jesus, in the novel, is represented as a mortal who walks into God’s trap and in spite of his unwillingness, is forced to carry out HIS wishes because HE deems so. Just like Cain (another Biblical protagonist that Saramago employs to dislocate the scriptures), Jesus tries to stop God’s plan and through a twist of fate, ends up become its greatest icon. The last words of Christ on the cross aptly sum up the black humor the novel is steeped in, “Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done”.
Saramago dares to contemplate on the possibility of God being a selfish supernatural being amusing “Himself” with the antics of mere mortals. Saramago, unlike most of his contemporaries, did not wish to be politically correct. In fact, if anything he seems to mince apart any form of sympathy one may seem to hold for institutionalized Christianity. The ‘one true God’as in The Old Testament for him remains something of a deceptive, manipulative ruler (as he would go on to show the same in Cain) in The New Testament as well. Jesus at the end of the day for Saramago, is just a simple man who was twisted and turned and used for the benefit of a singular person far above him in terms of both power and prestige. And unlike the miracles of Christ, that is something we can relate to.
I would like to end with a passage that shows just how far the author is willing to push the envelope:
“MONTHS LATER, ON A COLD AND RAINY WINTER NIGHT, AN angel entered the house of Mary of Nazareth without disturbing anyone. Mary herself only noticed the visitor because the angel spoke to her as follows, Know, Mary, that the Lord mixed His seed with that of Joseph on the morning you conceived for the first time, and it was the Lord’s seed rather than that of your husband, however legitimate, that sired your son Jesus. Much surprised, Mary asked the angel, So Jesus is my son and also the son of the Lord. Woman, what are you saying, show some respect for precedence, the way you should put it is the son of the Lord and also of me. Of the Lord and also of you. No, of the Lord and of you. You confuse me, just answer my question, is Jesus our son. You mean to say the Lord’s son, because you only served to bear the child. So the Lord didn’t choose me. Don’t be absurd, the Lord was merely passing, as anyone watching would have seen from the color of the sky, when His eye caught you and Joseph, a fine, healthy couple, and then, if you can still remember how God’s will was made manifest, He ordained that Jesus be born nine months later. Is there any proof that it was the Lord’s seed that sired my firstborn. Well, it’s a delicate matter, what you’re demanding is nothing less than a paternity test, which in these mixed unions, no matter how many analyses, tests, and genetic comparisons one carries out, can never give conclusive results. There I was thinking the Lord had chosen me for His bride that morning, and now you tell me it was pure chance and He could just as easily have chosen someone else, well, let me tell you, I wish you hadn’t descended to Nazareth to leave me in this state of uncertainty, besides, surely any son of the Lord, even with me as the mother, would have stood out at birth and, growing up, would have had the same bearing, appearance, and manner of speaking as the Lord himself, and though people say a mother’s love is blind, my son Jesus looks ordinary enough to me.”
Title Art by Aiden Samuell
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