Friday, 20 March 2009
'THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST
‘The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is the most controversial and daring of Jose Saramago’s novel yet. The book more or less follows the chronological paths of the earlier gospels, though it dwells more on Jesus’ childhood rather than the later part of canonization where Jesus metamorphoses as Jesus Christ. Saramago re – imagines the life of Christ in an epochal work, no less important than all the other gospels, but is essentially a fictional and alternate history.
In Saramago’s own words, ‘My Gospel tries to fill the blank spaces between the various episodes of Jesus’ life as narrated in other gospels – with some interpretations of my own’. This would be an understatement since the novel literally shook the very foundations of Christianity, with all its dichotomies.
The ‘Gospel’ follows the life of Jesus Christ from conception to crucifixion, while focusing on a naïve Jesus, who is as human as any other of his times. He is pictured as entirely susceptible to human desires and inclinations.
Jesus is born to a devoted Jewish carpenter Joseph and his young wife Mary. The subtle eroticism in which Saramago portrays Jesus’ conception hacks down all former illogical theories surrounding Jesus’ birth. Just before Jesus is born the census of Rome decrees that all citizens need to register themselves at the original place of their birth. Joseph sets off with his very pregnant Mary towards Galilee, his native place. Mary gives birth to Jesus at Bethlehem in a cave assisted by Salome, a lowly maid. King Herod, who is visited by demons with the news that the future King of the Jews has already taken birth, orders his henchmen to kill all children aged below three. Here, I am reminded of the birth of Krishna, and the imprisonment of his parents, and the decree of the king to kill all new born children. Joseph hastens to save his firstborn forgetting his first duty as a human being. He forgets to warn the others of the impending disaster and is plagued by nightmares all his life, making him an insomniac in the bargain. He believes that he alone has been instrumental in the macabre killings of twenty five innocent children.
Jesus inherits his father’s legacy – the horrendous nightmares, after Joseph is mistakenly crucified along with thirty nine other rebels, who had rebelled against Roman occupation and cruelty. The transferal of Joseph’s perplexing guilt to his son ‘injects the story with the substance of modern day psychology’. This is where the despotic god, thirsty for blood and power, resurrects a celestial tyrant from the annals of the Old Testament.
Before Jesus’ tryst with god in a desert, Jesus has already met and lived with the devil and chosen to cohabit with Mary Magdalene. The miracles are narrated with a tongue in cheek technique, where Jesus himself is surprised with the results that he achieves. There is a fine interlacing of ‘somber realism, grotesque fantasy and wry humor’. The identity of the mysterious beggar at the Annunciation and the strangely compassionate shepherd with whom the wandering Jesus spends his formative years, provide a unique and unnerving twist to the traditional version of the gospel story. This leads in turn to the reconsideration of the age old debate on good and evil.
Narrated in glorious prose, ‘The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is an intriguing investigation into the worth of Christianity by ‘the most gifted novelist alive in the world today’ according to literary critic, Harold Bloom. The book portrays Jesus Christ as an innocent human caught in the machinations of god and devil. The provocative conclusions which can be drawn most transparently from the reading of the novel is not surprising to any reader well versed in the writings of Saramago, who reposts all glories to the human spirit. Brutally atheistic, Saramago vilifies religion – religion is always a very offensive institution to intellectual beings.
The novel ends with Jesus defying god’s orders as an angst ridden Jesus rebels by getting himself crucified by proclaiming that he is King of the Jews, rather than bowing to god’s dictum that Jesus proclaim himself as the Son of God. Jesus’ last word on the crucifix is a telling commentary on his rebellion. ‘Men, forgive Him, He knows not what He has done’. At all times I wonder why the nobility that human beings possess and practices is never highlighted as against the unbelievable qualities attributed to god.
The Gospel according to Jesus Christ’ is threaded with unveiled challenges and is designed to provoke. Provoke it did, as it became so controversial that the Portuguese Government had to withdraw the nomination of the book from The European Literary Prize in 1992. Jose Saramago went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.
Reading Saramago is an intellectual challenge to all readers, except for those who are severely bent towards dogmatic religionism.