Jose Saramago – The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

*The following information applies to the English hardcover edition. (the novel was originally published in Portuguese in 1991).*

Author: Jose Saramago
Translator: Giovanni Pontiero

Title: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
Published: 1994
Publisher: Harcourt Brace and Company
Length: 377 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Target age: Adult
Why I picked it up: Heard about the author’s death, had book recommended by a friend
Rating: 4 stars
Buy: Chapters | Barnes and Noble | Check your local bookstore!

This book was much better than I expected it to be. I sought it out because the premise sounded interesting (fictionalized account of Jesus’ life as human), I did not expect the actual writing to be so impressive. Normally the type of authors who win Nobel Prizes aren’t my style, but I’ve already gone to the library and checked out two more books by Saramago.
Saramago’s style is fairly unique. He writes with very little punctuation. No quotations to indicate dialogue are found within this novel. Commas are greatly favoured in places of periods. An sample of dialogue between Mary and Joseph:
Mary looked at him in dismay, Are we leaving, she asked, Yes, this very minute, But you said, Be quiet and start packing while I harness the donkey. Aren’t we going to eat first. No, we’ll eat something on the way. But it will soon be dark and we might get lost, whereupon Joseph lost his temper.
The narration is also very different. The story is written as though told through the eyes of one narrator who takes on the view of different characters…it’s hard to describe exactly what it’s like so I marked this passage as an example.
These are cruel times indeed, when a pregnant woman comes knocking at our door and we deny her shelter in a corner of the yard and send her off to give birth in a cave, like the bears and wolves. Something pricked our conscience however, and, getting up from where we were sitting, we went to the door to see for ourselves this husband and wife who so desperately needed a roof over their heads. The sadness in that poor girl’s face was enough to arouse our maternal instinct, so we patiently explained why we could not possibly take them in, the house was already crowded with sons and daughters, grandchildren, in-laws. As you can see, there simply isn’t any room here, but our slave will take you to a cave we use as a stable.
This form of narration is not constant throughout the novel, but it does pop up from time to time.

My description of the writing style may make this novel sound like a tough read, but surprisingly I found it wasn’t at all difficult. The story flowed smoothly and felt very natural. I really enjoyed this style and I look forward to reading Saramago’s other novels.

The story itself was also beautifully crafted. The characters and relationships between them illustrated in the novel (especially those between Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Mary Magdalene) felt very real, emotional and believable. I felt something for each one of those characters.

This is a fairly hefty novel but not once did I find myself bored with it. Maybe that’s just me…but I found myself wanting to keep reading to experience more of the characters and the style.

My knowledge of the Bible is not as great as it probably should be, but I was able to pick up on two events that Saramago interpreted differently  than the Bible: the story of Lazarus and the story of Judas Iscariot. I found it impressive how easily Saramago was able to craft different interpretations of each of these characters and yet do so in such a believable way.

As you can tell, I was pretty impressed with this novel. Clearly I need to read more novels like this one…I’m very much looking forward to reading Blindness and Death With Interruptions, which are currently sitting in a book crate under my bed.

Side note: I listened to Peter Gabriel’s Passion, an album I downloaded roughly a year ago and listen to from time to time, while reading this book. It created a very fitting atmosphere 🙂