on 1 August 2000
This book draws your attention the minute you start reading the first few pages, a description of a medieval painting of a crucifixion scene. From thereon, you are embroiled in a clever mixture of fiction and biblical myth, masterfully conjoining a beautiful story with shards proferred by the gospels.
Saramago has developed a velvet like way of writing which is often difficult to read over prolonged periods. The absence of standard punctuation and paragraphs make it reminiscent of Beckett, and his use of language is comparable to that other winner of the Nobel prize. Read this book just for its beautiful descriptive passages, the delicate love story, the distrust of power and its groundedness in humanity.
It will linger with you for months after.
on 14 September 2001
This is a magnificent novel, worthy of comparison with that other great Jesus novel, Kazantzakis' "The Last Temptation". Saramago's theme is fairly common, one that has worried theologians for centuries: how can a loving god permit so much evil and suffering to exist in the world? The real villain of the book is not the devil, who seems almost sympathetic, a reluctant accomplice in the divine scheme, but the old testament Jehovah, a tyrant willing to sacrifice no end of martyrs, beginning with his own son, to achieve his ends. Saramago has faith in the goodness of people, perhaps indicative of his communist sympathies; there are several instances in the narrative where strangers come to the aid of the young Jesus as he goes in search of his ancestry and his destiny; he is sympathetic too with Joseph, whose guilt about not warning the parents of the murdered innocents results in an untimely death. All but the most liberal Christians will be offended by this book, and many will dismiss it as a communist indictment of religion. If, however, you can accept the book's didactic purpose, its passionate disavowal of the idea that there is any kind of divine grace or love, you will be enchanted by Saramago's wordy, often unpunctuated style, his wry, ironical tone, and his brilliant weaving of realist and mythical elements, complete with lengthy "evangelical" glosses. The best novel I have read since "One Hundred Years Of Solitude".
on 3 November 2010
Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer Saramago is at his best in this novel. Typical of his style, a well-known event is an opportunity for a fictional work where the fragility of our beliefs is exposed with humour and empathy - there isn't an unconditional truth, it all can change depending on the way we look at it. In this deep and controversial story we meet a Jesus Christ who is altruistic and giving but more human than divine - a religious truth looked at from a different angle. From a literary point of view, this is a masterpiece.
on 14 June 2013
"It's your parents that mess you up" is a well known maxim, or more accurately, "It's your upbringing that messes you up" and in the case of Saramago's The Gospel According To Jesus it's the fault of his two fathers.
Jesus' biblical story is re-told by an unnamed `evangelist' at pains to detail his early life so that the reader can understand his subsequent actions. The guilt suffered by Joseph by not warning the parents of Bethlehem of Herod's intended massacre of the innocents drives and haunts him throughout his life and becomes Jesus' inheritance. The angst of Jesus continues through much of the book and is later replaced by the demands of his second Father, God. These demands are transmuted into guilt for the future deaths and sufferings of many thousands of people when Jesus begins to understand God's plan to start a world encompassing religion using his son's life and death.
If God made man in his image, then God must be made in man's image - and if this is so, then he must act with all the faults and errors of a man though with more power. This logic informs the final third of the novel once God has made his divine plan known.
The narrator also picks at the many holes in the Gospels' accounts using logic and reasoning. But this is not the real purpose of this novel - after all many other writers from Thomas Paine to Christopher Hitchens have obliterated any claim the Bible may have had to be either a true account of a divinely written text. The central aim in this book is to answer the question "Who is God and why does he allow such evil, misery and suffering in the world?"
As an antitheist this novel is hardly going to challenge a faith - but if you are a believer in Christianity there is one major eye opening (maybe mind-opening would be more apt) section when God lists many the martyrs (by name)that must die, and how they die and then discourses on the thousands (millions?) who are destined to perish whether for the religion or against it - it makes no odds which side you are on.
on 23 September 2009
I have read this book a couple of years ago, and it still stays with me, bits of it flash by in my mind every day at one point or another. For those who can digest a less than dogmatic view of God, Jesus and the Fallen Angel, and have a good sense of humour , then this book is an absolute delight!
Nothing is absolute, nothing is black and white, and it all just alters depending on the perspective you're looking at it. We all know that, nothing new there, but Jose Saramago does it beautifully and boldly to a subject that is so divisive in human history, you hear the sharp intakes of breath and murmurs of - `how dares he?'
I loved every minute of it, even some of the more long drawn passages.
on 15 October 2003
Despite being slightly put off by the title, I was pleasantly surprised with Saramago's fascinating twist on the life of Jesus Christ. Not only is the book written in a poetic and graceful style which makes the reader glued to each page, but his interpretation of Jesus' life forces one to think and rethink their own values.
Whether or not you are religious is irrelevant when reading this book as it is a wonderful read - due to Saramago's excellence in story telling and painting a picture through words.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to readers looking for a wonderfully written book about a subject that may not have previously interested readers.
on 25 July 2006
`TGATJC' is Saramago's retelling of the story of Jesus. It is broadly based on the gospels of the New Testament of the Christian bible, but Saramago invents new scenes and re-interprets existing ones. In the book, the characters of the New Testament are presented as being ordinary human beings caught in extraordinary events. Christian tradition teaches that Joseph, Jesus and Mary were all people, but they are usually portrayed as having the aspects of saints and saviours. `TGATJC' asks the question: what would the events of the gospels look like if told by, and about, human beings. The book concentrates largely on Jesus' relationship with his family, and his parents in particular.
Saramago doesn't set out to shock, and despite the opportunity for contraversialism, actually paints a relatively respectful picture of Jesus' family. Their human aspects are emphasised though, and the book begins with an earthy description of Joseph urinating before having sex with Mary, and her birth pains are graphically described. Jesus too is portrayed as having a very human nature: fallible, often confused and sexually active. I didn't find it remotely shocking, and actually thought it to be a touching and realistic portrait of a family. What may be more controversial is Saramago's portrait of God, who is portrayed very much as he appears in the Old Testament (i.e. how people of Jesus' time would have conceived of God). Saramago's God is jealous and power hungry. His battle isn't with the Devil, but with other Gods over the belief of mankind. Jesus' death is part of his quest for power and the devil, rather than an enemy, is an uneasy ally, because one cannot exist without the other. This God is very much the pre-Christian conceptualisation of God, one which the people of Jesus' era would have recognised. Again Saramago asks the question: if Jesus was a man, what would God have looked like to him?
`TGATJC' made a story that I have heard a thousand times seem utterly new. It will undoubtedly upset many people, but if you are prepared to accept the central point, (that of its protagonists' humanity) then it will make you look at the bible story in an entirely new way. It is a skilful piece of writing and, despite the large blocks of unbroken text, easy to read. `TGATJC' is thought-provoking and eye-opening, and anyone wanting a different perspective on the stories in the gospels should read it.
on 15 July 2011
Picked this book up purely by chance one day as the subject matter just caught my attention and I'm so glad I did. This is a superbly written book with Saramago's own interpretation of the life of Jesus. Read it and make of it what you will. It's been written about an emotive subject and each person depending on your outlook will have a different take on the subject matter. What people need to remember is that it is a work of fiction. As a piece of writing it is magnificent with sentences, on occasion, running to one and a half pages. The fact that you can read such sentences without having to go back over it to understand speaks volumes about the quality of Saramago's writing. I was not aware of this author until I got this book but I will definitely be getting more of his books.
MUCH TO DISOCOVER IN THIS BOOK DESPITE THE FEW SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW.
The word Gospel (and also Evangelho, in Saramago’s original Portuguese title) means “good news”; but there is no good news in this story of Jesus Christ according to the atheist José Saramago.
For the first seventy pages or so out of 350, he sticks reasonably close to the Biblical accounts, but filling the story out: for instance by describing in some detail the story of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census; or by dropping in well-researched details, for instance of the lay-out of the Temple or the way that men (like Joseph) normally treated their wives (like Mary). But Saramago also takes quite a few liberties with the Gospels, such as having a mysterious beggar rather than the archangel Gabriel making the Annunciation. But in the first few chapters of the book these liberties are not subversive of the Gospel story in any profound sense.
Every now and then, Saramago addresses the reader directly, sometimes telling him what he (the author) is doing; at other times with sardonical observations like asking how God could be pleased with the disgusting scenes and stenches as animals were sacrificed to him at the Temple - the revulsion against sacrifices is one of the recurring themes of the book.
The first significant departure from the Gospels relates to the Massacre of the Innocents. What is not so important is how Joseph learns of the impending massacre - though this is not in the way told in Matthew’s Gospel; but rather the guilt that fell on Joseph and - by extension (so it was told) on his baby son - for having done nothing to warn the parents in Bethlehem of what he had learnt. From now on, invented narratives follow thick and fast.
Saramago has invented a terrible fate for Joseph; so Mary’s first grief is for her husband; and Jesus, too, still a boy of thirteen, grieves for him, and, learning of the guilt Joseph had felt, himself felt guilty that he had been saved when so many had been slaughtered. It gives him nightmares in which he dreams that his father (Father?) was out to kill him; and presently they drive him from his home and he makes for the Temple in Jerusalem, a journey again told in great detail. At the Temple he searches out a scribe and asks him about the theology of inherited guilt: the answer he receives confirms his terrible burden.
There is a continual wrestling with theological questions: is all the suffering in the world part of God’s inscrutable plan or is God’s will thwarted by human actions, performed because we are free but for which we will be punished? Or are there in fact two rulers of the world: God and Satan?
More inventions follow to fill in the unknown years of Jesus’ adolescence. Jesus takes a job in the wilderness as a shepherd, under a mysterious Master; and much play is made of the way he looks after the sheep and will not offer a lamb up for sacrifice at the Temple.
When Jesus is eighteen Saramago has God appear to him and tell him that he has a mission for him, whose nature will become clear in due course. The mysterious Master dismisses him and Jesus makes his way back to Nazareth. Now there are some evocations of the Gospel story, distorted though they are: he meets the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John whose nets he fills - he himself does not know how - with fish. He meets Mary Magdalen, loses his virginity to her and for many days is initiated by her into all the pleasures of the Song of Solomon. His brief return to his home in Nazareth is again invention, except that his brothers do not believe him when he tells the family that he had seen God. So he returns to Mary Magdalene, who does believe him; and they live together, leaving Magdala as Jesus continues helping the fishing community with the gift - of bringing in more fish, of calming a storm on the lake - he does not himself understand. By the time of the wedding at Cana, he is assured of his power. (Saramago makes the bride one of Jesus’ sisters and the groom a kinsman of Andrew’s. He will also conflate Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, so making her a sister of Lazarus whose Gospel story he will also subvert.)
By the time Jesus is twenty-five he knows he has the power to perform miracles; and when a madman calls him the Son of God, he starts to believe this himself. This is confirmed by God Himself, over forty days, in a second encounter which is not to be found in the Gospels and which is the crux of the book. God tells Jesus exactly what He has in mind for him, and that purpose of his martyrdom is that God’s reign shall be acknowledged not only by the small Jewish tribe but by Gentiles for centuries to come. When Jesus asks Him whether that will mean an end of human suffering, God has to say that suffering and martyrdoms will continue and He produces an alphabetical list running over many pages of the way in which martyrs will be put to death down the ages for bearing witness to Him. Countless others will be martyred by the Inquisition because they don’t believe the current orthodoxies about Him. There will be bloody wars and slaughter without end in His name and in the name of His enemies. And the reason for the continuation of all this suffering is that, as God’s reach grows, so also does that of the Devil who, it is now confirmed, has appeared several times in this story since the beginning and who is indeed present also during this encounter. The Devil makes an offer to God: to avoid all this suffering he proposes that God should forgive him his past offences and to allow him back as an obedient subject into the Heavenly Kingdom from which he had been expelled. God rejects the offer: the Good he represents cannot exist without the Evil represented by the Devil.
To me the weakest part of the book is that, with all these horrors foretold, Jesus does not go on strike! He accepts the mission and it is only now, some 50 pages from the end of a 350 page book, that he enlists his twelve disciples and embarks on his ministry.
Perhaps needless to say, these last pages again jumble up and change elements of the Gospel story more than ever. Suffice it to say that Saramago ends this novel, as he would end his later novel “Cain” (see my review) with an indictment of God: here the last words of Jesus on the Cross are “Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done.”
Regrettably Saramago, as always, spoils an ingenious story by indulging in the wilful and entirely pointless mannerism of not using quotation marks and, worse than that, not even having a separate line between one person and another person speaking. It makes the long debates and discussions particularly difficult to follow. There are in any case hardly any paragraph breaks and the punctuation is wilfully eccentric also. It’s a pity that the translator, Giovanni Pontiero, probably did not have the right (and might not have had the wish) to present the work in a more user-friendly form.
on 29 September 2014
José Saramago presents a richly imagined human interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a valid implied critique that, whilst Christian doctrine insists on the incarnation of Christ, claiming him to be fully human and fully divine, the Biblical gospels focus entirely on his divinity, and report almost nothing of his humanity. Saramago reverses this emphasis, and in his account, Jesus suffers doubt, feels morally imperfect, and finds sexual love with Mary Magdalene.
Like Kierkegaard in ‘Fear and Trembling’ struggling with the ethic of God instructing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, Saramago repeatedly struggles with the ethic of the Bible’s story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents (which is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel and nowhere else in historical record). Saramago’s moral challenge is valid – why didn’t God, and/or Jesus’s father Joseph, warn the other inhabitants of Bethlehem, rather than just selfishly fleeing themselves?
Saramago gently mocks the miracles of Jesus. How come 5,000 people, used to providing for themselves, had travelled without any provision? Why couldn’t a powerful God have simply overcome the Gadarene demons rather than having to transfer them into pigs? The swineherds were financially ruined and understandably angry. People ventured out to sea to recover the dead pigs for meat. The glut of fish from miraculous catches sends prices tumbling. Others of the miracles appear as pointless magic. The cursing of the fig tree is a mistake which even Jesus regrets and seeks to reverse.
Humanising the gospel account often renders it laughable, improbable, or ethically dubious. God appears only in occasional and mysterious ways, and reveals his plan as a litany of atrocity from the crucifixion of Christ, through a multitude of terrible martyrdoms, religious wars and Crusades.
Saramago is less successful in challenging the moral teachings of Jesus, other than pointing out that the Sermon on the Mount refers also to contexts of strife. It is as moral philosophy that a human Jesus has substance and credibility, but this figure does need disentangling from the religious Christ