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Mark Walhout

The Sentimental Atheist

José Saramago.

When the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago died in 2010, Harold Bloom confidently predicted (in Time) that he "will be a permanent part of the Western canon." Bloom admitted to preferring Saramago's comic novels, including The Stone Raft, in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks free from Europe and floats off into the Atlantic, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. But he also included two of Saramago's darker novels, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Blindness, on his list of personal favorites.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ—which is narrated not by Jesus but by Saramago's usual faux naïve narrator—proved to be his most controversial novel. Bloom characterizes it, accurately enough, as "darkly comic." But there was nothing comic about it as far as the government of Prime Minister Antonio Cavaco Silva was concerned. When Saramago's Gospel was short-listed for a European prize, the Portuguese authorities retracted the nomination on the grounds that it was offensive to Catholics. Saramago responded by moving to the Canary Islands.

It's not hard to see why readers deemed the book offensive. Let's just say that Dan Brown was not the first novelist to concoct a "relationship" between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The fact remains, however, that Jesus is the hero of Saramago's Gospel. Like a character in Kafka or Pirandello, Jesus finds himself trapped in a plot he is powerless to change. The author of that plot, of course, is God, and it is at God's feet that Jesus lays the grievances of the human race, starting with the Massacre of the Innocents that has shadowed him since birth.

Cain, Saramago's last novel, is the sequel (or prequel) to his Gospel, a severely condensed parody of the Old Testament that runs to just 150 pages. In it, Cain plays the part assigned to Jesus in Saramago's Gospel, taking God to task for his errors, oversights, and outright cruelty. Why Cain? The world's first murderer seems an unlikely hero. ...

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