The Grand Comedian Visits the Bible


by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 159 pp., $24.00

José Saramago (1922–2010), a superb comic novelist, at his best was the peer of Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez. Cain, his last fiction, is a minor work, mostly valuable for its links to such permanent achievements as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), The Stone Raft (1986), and most closely to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991).

Mark Twain would have admired Saramago; both novelists were anti-Christian savage humanists who depicted the fundamental ferocity of human nature and society. Saramago’s works scarcely are of the eminence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but little else is, including the rest of Twain.

Saramago’s adolescence coincided with the early years of the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, where the Roman Catholic Church fused with a totalitarian nightmare, just as it did soon afterward in what became Franco’s Spain. My wife and I first visited Madrid and Barcelona in 1959, and were appalled by the desolate atmosphere brought about by the still ongoing fascist regime. Many years later we first visited Portugal, where Saramago graciously presented me for an honorary degree at the University of Coimbra. A warm acquaintanceship ensued, marked by an exegetical disagreement concerning The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which continued in correspondence and at a later meeting in New York City. Saramago’s will to power over the interpretation of his own texts was Nietzschean, and admirable in its comedic tenacity.

Cain is a deliberately farcical coda to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, whose God is very unpleasant indeed, being at once time and truth. He expresses his identity pungently in a conversation with his son Jesus:

For the last four thousand and four years I have been the God of the Jews, a quarrelsome and difficult race by nature, but on the whole I have got along fairly well with them, they now take Me seriously and are likely to go on doing so for the foreseeable future.

So, You are satisfied, said Jesus. I am and I am not, or rather, I would be were it not for this restless heart of Mine, which is forever telling Me, Well now, a fine destiny you’ve arranged after four thousand years of trial and tribulation that no amount of sacrifice on altars will ever be able to repay, for You continue to be the god of a tiny population that occupies a minute part of this world You created with everything that’s on it, so tell Me, My son, if I should be satisfied with this depressing situation.

Never having created a world, I’m in no position to judge, replied Jesus. True, you cannot judge, but you could help. Help in what way. To spread My word, to help Me become the god of more people. I don’t understand. If you play your part, that is to say, the part I have reserved for you in My plan, I have…

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