Gospel According to Jesus Christ (İsa’ya Göre İncil), Jose Saramago

In the third book review of our Book Club books, I had mentioned my high expectations of Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I’m glad to say that my expectations were met. Alas I must add that the discussion that followed was a bit dim.

It was not totally Saramago’s fault. Our timing was terrible. 43% of the book club members were depressed because of the financial crisis that began to shake the capitalist world. (Ironically, Saramago could have been feeling some schadenfreude at the same time.) 29% of the members had tardy arrivals because their business meetings ended very late, a bit unusual for a Ramadan day – usually work ends about an hour before sunset because people get too tired or too lazy to work. The choice of venue was another failure, it looked like a diner with bottomless coffee and dismal decor. Not only was it overly lit but also the shopping center it was housed in had somehow not been affected by the crisis. All the cozier restaurants were full and the atmosphere at our place was distracting with all the B-list celebrities strolling around us.

I had said that the reason the discussion was a failure was not totally Saramago’s fault, nonetheless his part was significant. This book was the first Book Club selection that all seven of us enjoyed reading. When we read Puslu Kıtalar Atlası (The Atlas of Misty Continents) by Ihsan Oktay Anar, Hikmet thought it was not as good as Anar’s later work and complained that it lacked wholeness. The second book was Mrs Dalloway and I didn’t like it; actually that is an understatement, I thought it was dreadful. The third book The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was considered lad fiction by Banu and she took up the habit of vetoing all my mildly chauvanist sounding book suggestions for new books ever since.

The main problem with the meeting was that everyone enjoyed The Gospel According to Jesus Christ so much there was no heated discussion, no conflicting views… I was very suprised to see so many agnostics and atheists around the same table in Turkey where believing and non-believing are both taboos. At one point, the discussion was about the levels of atheism. It would be nice to have a copy of The God Delusion with us.

İsa'ya Göre İncil

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is Jose Saramago’s blasphemous version of the story of Jesus’ life in the style of the four canonical gospels from the Bible. If you get a chance to read a little about Jose Saramago you will see that he is an agressive communist and a staunch atheist. His interpretation of the gospels, when published in the 1990’s, caused a good deal of resentment and the Portuguese goverment did not allow the book to compete in the European Literary Prize. Saramago was rightfully upset and he ended up leaving his home country for the Canary Islands. Not a bad choice – regardless of the bigotry involved.

In high school, one my favourite English Literature teachers (Franny Golden or Mary Haynes I’m not sure which one) had told us it would be very difficult to get a good understanding of Western Literature without a basic knowledge of the Bible. She used to read us some relevant passages here and there. (Looking back, she was lucky to not have been haunted for being a missionary.) But in the case of Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it was enough just to skim through the four gospels as I did — if you are as ignorant as yours truly about the life of Jesus. Saramago’s plot is pretty much the same but he filled in the gaps according to his own lack of belief.

Saramago’s gospel has more than a third devoted to Joseph (Jesus’ “biological” father) who is – in his version – the source of the original sin which later passes on to Jesus after Joseph’s gruesome death. Despite his boundless piety and stubbornness I was becoming very fond of Joseph when he was grinded between the wheels of the Roman death machine. Having always admired the Romans for their efficiency, I was terrified of the way Saramago described the method they had invented to systematically get rid of people – which reminded me of another reich and their efficient killing machine. Virgin Mary plays a minor role in the gospel, probably more realistic from a historical point of view.

After Joseph’s death Jesus emerges as a precocious young boy looking for answers to his existentialist questions. During his quest, he ends up meeting God and God’s fallen angel. Saramago’s God is a self-centred and ruthless deity whose abuses his somewhat limited powers. His Satan (who claims to hide God inside himself) is just an affable hedonist who is a little mysterious. The zenith of this yin yang relationship is the discussion the triumvirate have in the midst and the mist of the Sea of Galilee. Eventually Jesus ends up disappointed by everything he lives through — maybe everything except his lover Mary Magdalene.

Saramago reveals his characters in such a masterfully structured way that the readers are pulled into the story without being lost in his (a)moral messages which are far from subtle. His proficiency in depicting the political and monetary austerity faced by the Jews in Nazareth at the time is also worth noting. His style is that of an old raconteur telling an aged tale with humorous interruptions here and there just to remind us that we are in the present and the gospel, ironically named for an agnostic/atheist, is just another story with a sad ending.

As I had mentioned before, the discussion of the book in our book club left a lot to be desired. However one of the interesting comments came from Seha who thought that the book was an allegory to all hierarchical organisations where the needs and aspirations of the leaders are vastly different from the followers in an unsettling way, and that the leaders cloud the followers’ vision to keep the train running. Those followers who are able to make it to the top gradually get the real motives made more apparent to them, and may end up disappointed.

So we are left with Jesus who finds himself disappointed in a zugzwang and realizes that he is only a pawn. His power and his pride overwhelm him. According to Saramago he was just a sacrificial lamb with good intentions, forsaken by both his fathers and he should have been forgiven for he knows not what he has done.


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