Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Jose Saramago's O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo: Outline of a Newer Testament

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Jose Saramago's O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo: Outline of a Newer Testament

Article excerpt

Jose Saramago's O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo: Outline of a Newer Testament by David Frier

This article explores Jose Saramago's controversial novel O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (1991) from a variety of perspectives: fictional transformations of Scripture; the Portuguese literary topos of anticlericalism; the novel's place within Saramago's work as a whole; and the relationship between ideology and established religion. The article argues that the death of Saramago's Jesus and the bleak future which the author sees for a world dominated by dogmatic religion are due to a failure of the individual to take control of his/her own destiny, a potential represented most vividly in this novel by the transgressional figure of Mary Magdalene, who encourages rebellion against established norms.

The fact that the English-speaking world has remained largely distant from the controversies aroused by the novel O Evangelho Segundo Yesus Cristo (1991) by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago is perhaps more an indication of the barriers posed to foreign-language novels in the market of the world's dominant international language than a reflection on the significance of this novel itself, which has been both a commercial and a critical success in Portugal and has subsequently been translated into at least fourteen languages worldwide. (1) The author (who has written in other contexts of his distaste for cultural hegemonies, even while accepting their de facto existence) appears resigned rather than infuriated in his reflections on the interviews given by Norman Mailer after the publication of his The Gospel According to the Son (1997), in which the American novelist fails to make any acknowledgement at all of Saramago's similarly entitled work, which had appeared (in English translation) four years before his own. (2) Similarly, even if there is little doubt that most English-speaking readers would think of a work such as Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) more readily than they would of the Portuguese novel, what this fact really demonstrates is the greater impact of the medium of film in comparison with the written word in contemporary society, since the notoriety of this work is based primarily on Scorsese's noted adaptation of the text rather than on the novel itself.

Such allowances should not be permitted to detract from the significance of the work itself, however, and one might have thought that a novelist of Saramago's stature could be permitted to feel some slight from Mailer, for he has been a major figure in world literature since at least the early 1990s, and no less a critic than Harold Bloom has written of Saramago' Evangelho that 'it is an awesome work, imaginatively superior to any other life of Jesus, including the four canonical Gospels', and of his Jesus that he is 'humanly and aesthetically more admirable than any other vision of Jesus in the literature of the century now ending'. (3) The work certainly has not failed to arouse attention outside Portugal: the novelist's own journal Cadernos de Lanzarote reproduces a number of letters (ranging from the positive to the hostile and vindictive) from readers all over the world in reaction to it, while in his own native land the work was at the centre of the most significant literary polemic seen in Portugal since the international cause celebre of the Novas Cartas Portuguesas (whose

This article was prepared and written during a period of study leave sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, whose support for my work I gratefully acknowledge. three female authors were put on trial for publishing an allegedly pornographic work in the last days of the right-wing dictatorship which ruled the country until 1974). In what might be viewed symbolically as a return to the standards of that dictatorship, on 25 April 1992 the Portuguese Sub-Secretary of State for Culture, Sousa Lara, announced to the Portuguese media his refusal to put Saramago's Evangelho forward as the national candidate for a European Literary Award, (4) choosing to do so on the very anniversary of the revolution which had abolished a regime marked in cultural terms by its strict censorship of all forms of expression. …

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