A retelling of Jesus Christ’s life not as the holiest man in the universe but as a man, an everyday man, who is reluctant to take on the duties imposed to him as mankind’s savior, this novel has to be read putting aside your religious biases. If you are a hardcore Catholic and cannot stomach sacrilege of any form, stop reading now. But really, this is still fiction, and I think this will leave the reader in a kind of spell, not without some doubts or a bit of thinking for the provocative narrative that the author has laid out in, some parts, a disconcertingly funny way.
There are four gospels like any other Catholic knows, but have you not ever wondered back in those early, early days what really went on inside the head of Jesus? True enough, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tried their best to chronicle the, uhm, adventures of Jesus, but still, what they have written are what they have seen and what they can remember. They cannot truly record what Jesus felt because they are not, well, Jesus.
We have this notion, at least for people reared into Catholicism, that Jesus is the epitome of a perfect man, but instead, we read about his hopes, his fears, and his vague understanding of what God wants him to do. He finds it baffling that it takes a lot on the part of mankind to realize the wishes of God.
There was silence, God and the Devil confronted each other for the first time, both giving the impression of being about to say something, but nothing happened. Jesus said, I’m waiting, For what, asked God, as if distracted, For You to tell me how much death and suffering Your victory over other gods will cost, how much suffering and death will be needed to justify the battles men will fight in Your name and mine, You insist on knowing, Yes, I do, Very well then, the assembly I mentioned will be founded, but in order to be truly solid, its foundations will be dug out in flesh, and the bases made from the cement of abnegation, tears, suffering, torment, every conceivable form of death known or as yet unrevealed, At long last, You’re starting to make sense, carry on. Let’s start with someone whom you know and love, the fisherman Simon, whom you will call Peter, like you, he will be crucified, but upside down, Andrew, too, will be crucified on a cross in the shape of an X, the son of Zebedee, known as James, will be beheaded, And what about John and Mary Magdalene, They will die of natural causes when their time comes, but you will make other friend, disciples and apostles like the others, who will not escape torture, friends such as Philip who will be tied to a cross and stoned to death, Bartholomew who will be skinned alive, Thomas who will be speared to death, Matthew, the details of whose death I no longer remember, another Simon who will be sawn in half, Judas who will be beaten to death, James stoned, Matthias beheaded with an axe, also Judas Iscariot, but as you will know better than me, spared death but strung from a gig tree by his own hands, Are all these men about to die because of You, asked Jesus, If you phrase the question in that way, the answer is Yes, they will die for My sake, And then what, Then, my son, as I’ve already told you, there will be an endless tale of iron and blood, of fire and ashes, an infinite sea of sorrow and tears, Tell me, I want to know everything.
One has to be God to enjoy so much bloodshed, the Devil says in reaction to the things that are bound to happen just to ensure that the Catholic church or, loosely put, God’s power, will be fully rooted on this earth. Just to make things straight, God and the Devil are personified in this novel, giving them human qualities that allow us to see things in a different perspective. Although the author is a self-professed atheist, I don’t think he is attempting to convert the reader into something else. He is mostly trying to tell the story from a different perspective.
This is not something that should be read lightly. It is too controversial that I find it tough to write something about it. The events in Jesus Christ’s life as written in the Bible are the bases of the novel’s plot, but with some inversions. Jesus Christ asks for the forgiveness not of his fathers’ sins, but of his Father’s sins. The Devil tempts not Jesus into sinning, but God into renouncing his assigned role as the seat of all evil. And God, what can I say about Him?
Oh God, please forgive me, but You are a power-hungry something who would do anything just to make Your wishes come true. In the novel, that is. You are flimsy, unreasonable, and unrelenting. You do not care that Jesus doesn’t want to do what You want him to do. You will not forgive the Devil because making him side with You will render your throne, the good side, worthless. For how can there be any good if evil is nil?
There is too much to say about the theme, and this minor writing is not enough. I also think that I have blasphemed enough. Although I am not, never was, and never will be a Catholic, I am not an atheist as well. So let’s focus on how Saramago wrote this.
As always, the writing is distinctly him. The dialogue alternates between commas, so if you are not reading intently, it’s most probable that you will get lost. But it’s easy to adjust yourself if you are not a Saramago reader. Besides, there’s a lot of humor to keep you going. Sometimes, the humor borders on slapstick, but yes, we don’t mind.
It is also amazing that the author knows a lot about the Bible. Of course, he cannot ever write this novel without reading the Bible. One would get the feeling that this book is the inverted new testament. The disciples of Jesus are gullible. Judas Iscariot did not betray Jesus her, but he actually sacrificed his life for him. And the Devil?
The Devil is my favorite character here. He is the real, and literal, shepherd who provided Jesus a job, a home, and warnings. He understands what God wants in a manner when one cannot really do anything about it, so he tries as much as he could to sympathize and be a real father to Jesus.
It’s pretty disturbing reading this with all our Catholic beliefs imprinted on our minds, but just for the sake of sheer entertainment, a dangerously philosophical one, this novel passes for a must-read. It is not a book that tries too hard. It is bereft of pretense. It doesn’t force you to swallow Saramago’s beliefs.
Rather, it makes you think, allowing you to come up with your own judgments. It is a courageous, wise, and powerful work. I have not read Dan Brown; I have nothing against him. I don’t think that he and Saramago are on the same league, but the latter’s gospel is the best of its kind.