Friday, 20 March 2009







‘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.



redkazim said...

The book must be a really good read.

By the way, I can't imagine somebody writing 'parallel' history of the prophet of Islam. In the name of 'parallel history' in Urdu fiction, all we have is novels of Nasim Hijazi glorifying Arab imperialism.

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

You've offered a definitive look at Saramago's portrayal of Jesus which, until this moment, I didn't even know existed! Thank you for your essay and review, Chandini.
I've noted it on my reading list which has become very long!

Chandini Santosh said...

Eminent Lyricist and film director Sreekumaran Thampi's son died a tragic and unnatural death at Hyderabad today. Mr. Thampi had sent me his latest collection of poems ten days back. His words of consolation at the news of my husband Dr. Santosh's death rings in my ears.

I do not know what words to use, though I know what the terrible loss must feel like. I can only share your grief, Mr. Sreekumaran Thampi.

Only time can heal, not words.

Chandini Santosh said...

Dear Kazim
A parallel history of the prophet of Islam is unthinkable and unimaginable.

There are many versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, some of them explicitly negative about women gods. One version has it that Sita gave in to Ravana, her abductor, willingly. Even so, these versions had not attracted any fatwas. In today's scenario, this would be a tall order.

Christianity has to an extent, accepted dissent in the modern context. To me, all religions preach one and the same dogma - that of curtailing human worth and dignity.

chocolate man said...

Hi Chand.... The Tall WIndow arches in your last two paintings were simply superb. They looked like if we were standing in front of it and seeing it with our own eyes.....Kudos for bringing life to those arches and windows. Simply stunning works of art, you may end up getting an award for it (I pray !!!). You surely will. Thanks.

Chandini Santosh said...

Dear Pravin
The best compliments I have ever received for my sketches! Being an artist yourself, I am sure you are able to connect with them.

By the way, they are done with oil patels and charcoal sticks and the latest one is the adaptation of the cover of Saramago's magnum opus, 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ'. This might look like a Gothic window, but they really are TREES! At least that is what I could make out.

Bye and Loves.

petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

(((Chandini)))! I had no idea you had lost your husband until reading one of your replies.
I have lost my youngest sister and one of my brothers, and you're right, only time heals, and even with time, the images never leave!

Chandini Santosh said...

Dear Petra
My list is longer. It reads like a who's who of my life.

Dr. Santosh, my husband, fifty seven years old, died last July eight months back. He died of cancer.

reezan said...

I agree with redkazim. Writing such a book on the prophet is unimaginable. The fear of Muslim backlash is suckering us all into self-censorship. Recall the recent arrest of the editor and publisher of a Kolkatta newspaper for publishing a syndicated article that sought to defend freedom of speech. They were arrested because fanatic elements among Muslims in that city resorted to violence against the newspaper office. The Rushdie episode is still fresh in all our minds. But there is no room for pessimism, I think. Hasn't Rushdie survived the Ayatollah who decreed his killing? Rushdie is still writing. So is Taslima Nasreen. The killing of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film-maker, for making 'Submission' has not stopped his countryman Geert Wilders from releasing his short film 'Fitna' that is also critical of radical Islam.