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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. Then again, Cain was the first victim of the Lord's arbitrariness, when his offering was rejected in favor of Abel's. That victimization, as Saramago sees it, is the mark of Cain—the mark of a creature who must rebel against his Creator.

Biblical commentators, of course, have felt the need to explain the Lord's rejection of Cain's offering. In Hebrews 11:4, for example, we read, "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and by it he being dead yet speaketh." Mischievously, Saramago chose this verse from Hebrews as the epigraph for Cain, attributing it to the "Book of Nonsense."

And yet, Saramago's parodies of biblical stories were his back-handed way of paying homage to a Book that he loved to hate and hated to admit that he loved. Saramago may have delighted in mocking the faithful and offending the pious, but he was first and foremost a born storyteller. As a storyteller, he couldn't help but form a certain attachment to his Old Testament characters—even to the Lord God Himself, whose growing exasperation with Cain's contrariness is, well, all too human.

Before he could write Cain, however, Saramago had to overcome a basic structural problem. The gospel lends itself to novelistic treatment, with a ready-made hero living in a particular time and place. The Old Testament narratives, on the other hand, have no single protagonist, span multiple generations, and take place in various Near Eastern locales. Saramago's solution to this problem was to make Cain a fugitive in time as well as space, transporting him from one biblical story to another in the blink of an eye. By means of this bit of authorial license, Cain can be whisked off to witness Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom, and Noah's Flood.

What saves Cain (just barely) from this gimmicky plot device is its sheer inventiveness and its Monty Pythonesque sense of humor. Here's a trivial example. Early in his wanderings, Cain is offered a construction job and a place to stay by a kindly overseer: "You really are a good samaritan, said cain, A samaritan, asked the overseer, intrigued, what's that, You know, I'm not sure, the word just came out, I don't know what it means either."

Either you find this sort of thing funny or you don't. I will admit—somewhat sheepishly—that I emitted an involuntary chuckle as I read that bit of throwaway dialogue. But then again I used to think The Life of Brian was funny.

I can't resist mentioning one more bit of inspired silliness on Saramago's part. When Cain is examining Noah's Ark with the Lord, he points out that a boat that heavy simply won't float no matter how much water rises under it. That's why boat-builders always build near a sea or river, he explains, in order to displace enough water to buoy the boat. After a moment of consternation, the Lord—who evidently didn't know about Archimedes' Principle, being a pre-scientific deity—orders his angels to lift the Ark and carry it through the air to the sea.

And then Cain spots a unicorn running desperately toward the Ark as it flies away. Too late!

If Saramago's Ark episode reads like something out of a story by Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez, it's no coincidence. Saramago was a great admirer of the fabulists and magical realists of Latin America (some of whom, of course, wrote in Portuguese). As a matter of fact, he wrote affectionately about García Márquez ("Gabo") and his other favorites in the blog that he kept in the last few years of his life, now available in book form under the title The Notebook (with a foreword by one of his Italian admirers, Umberto Eco).

Be forewarned: many of the blog posts collected in The Notebook are of a polemical nature, directed at Saramago's favorite villains, such as former President George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI (the former Cardinal Ratzinger). Here, for example, is the beginning of a post from September 2008: "I wonder why it is that the United States, a country so great in all things, has so often had such small presidents. George W. Bush is perhaps the smallest of them all." A month later, Saramago mused, "What might God think of Ratzinger? … Of course, for God to think something of Ratzinger … it would be necessary to demonstrate the existence of said God, the most impossible of tasks, in spite of the supposed proofs offered by Saint Anselm."

Such shoot-from-the-hip posts reveal Saramago in one of his favorite roles—that of gadfly to the powerful men who are responsible for wars and lies. Yet The Notebook also shows him to have been a sentimentalist. Take, for instance, his affection for his Portuguese water dog, Camões (named for Portugal's epic poet, Luís de Camões). In an entry posted after he learned that Bo, the new White House pet, was also a water dog, Saramago offered to loan Camões to the Obama family: "Were the White House to wish it, we might consider a short loan (not a long one, since then we would miss him ourselves) of our dear Camões, to serve as a mentor to the presidential puppy, and to teach him the manners that he ought to display at all times, worthy of a dog dignified by true Portuguese descent."

Another of Saramago's sentimental attachments was to the city of Lisbon—more specifically, the Lisbon of his childhood: "My Lisbon was always that of the poor neighborhoods, and … the memory I always preferred to retain was that of the Lisbon of my early years, the Lisbon of people who possess little and feel much, still rural in their customs and their understanding of the world." Indeed, these people—the peasantry-turned-proletariat—were Saramago's people, whose patient endurance and quiet dignity he never tired of defending.

Saramago's affection for his people is nowhere more evident than in Small Memories, a slender memoir of his childhood. Alternating between Lisbon and the village of Azinhaga—his ancestral home—Saramago imposes no pattern on his memories, giving free rein to his stream of consciousness. As a result, the volume consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes, like beads on a rosary. At the same time, he is careful to mark the difference between what he felt and thought as a child and what he feels and thinks now, as an eighty-year-old writer looking back on the origins of his imaginative life.

Among other things, Small Memories is a tribute to Saramago's maternal grandparents, with whom he lived, on and off, in Azinhaga. They raised pigs, managing to keep them alive even in coldest winter:

Every night, my grandfather and grandmother would go to the sty and find the weakest of the piglets, wash their feet and legs and lay them down in their own bed. They would sleep there together, beneath the same blankets and the same sheets, with my grandmother on one side of the bed and my grandfather on the other, and between them, three or four piglets who must have thought they were in heaven.

Saramago, too, thought his grandparents' house was heaven—the only heaven, it seems, that he ever really believed in.

If Saramago's account of his childhood is to be believed, he was always a "young pagan." His family, it appears, did not attend Mass, although his mother—"a skeptic out of sheer indifference"—did permit some pious Catholic neighbors to take young Jose to the church two or three times. But a worshipful attitude did not come naturally to him: "When the sacristan rang the bell and the congregation obediently bowed their heads, I couldn't resist turning my head slightly to sneak a look at whatever it was we weren't supposed to see."

It's fair to say that this boyish skepticism—the suspicion that the priests are trying to hide something from us—never left him. Writing Cain and his blog in his eighties, he was still sneaking a look. And now, at last, he sees why those people were bowing their heads.

Mark Walhout teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.

Books by José Saramago discussed in this essay:

Cain, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

Small Memories: A Memoir, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin, 2011).

The Notebook, translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Daniel Hahn (Verso, 2010).

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