Irony Incarnate : THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST, <i> By Jose Saramago</i> . <i> Translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harcourt Brace: $23.95; 384 pp.)</i>

The gospel according to Jose Saramago begins with the author contemplating a painting of the Crucifixion and, in a kind of mock gravity, subverting its iconography. Which of the figures is Mary Magdalene? Surely, the one with the plunging neckline; on the other hand, one woman is blond. There is, after all “the popular belief that women with blond hair, whether it be natural or dyed, are the most effective instruments of sin.”

Then there are the two thieves. Why should one be called “the good thief,” simply because he repented? Surely the honest thief is the one “who did not pretend to believe that sudden repentance suffices to redeem a whole life of evil.” Most important, there is the receding figure of a man looking back over his shoulder, and carrying a bucket and a sponge. Through two millennia he has been reviled for offering vinegar to a thirsting Jesus. But in those days, vinegar and water was a recognized thirst quencher, Saramago insists, and he continues:

“The man walks away, does not wait for the end, he did all he could to relive the mortal thirst of the three condemned men, making no distinction between Jesus and the thieves, because these are things of this earth, which will persist on this earth, and from them will be written the only possible history.”

Thus the tone that launches Saramago’s New Testament reworking. It is a special blend of irony and innocence, of playfulness and melancholy; a disputatiousness that mocks not only received doctrine but its own mockery as well. It marks Saramago, Portugal’s most distinguished living writer, as it marked his literary predecessors, Eca de Queiroz and Machado de Assis. It sounds a note as rooted in Portugal’s character as Hemingway’s clipped bark or Whitman’s unclipped yawp were rooted in America’s.


It is the voice of a country whose long-departed imperial unboundedness left it bound in a misty veil that has kept it oddly out of modern history. No dialectical confrontations for Portugal; no French or Russian Revolution nor even a Spanish-style civil war. At most the oddly pleasant Revolution of Carnations in the early ‘70s that slipped away the remains of the Salazar dictatorship much as a sleeper half-awakens to shrug off an unneeded blanket. When Germany, Italy and Spain were tyrannized by uniformed dictators, Portugal was tyrannized by a professor of economics. Imagine John Kenneth Galbraith ruling the United States for 40 years with the aid of a ubiquitous, dark-suited or--more likely--tweedy secret police.

“The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” is likewise oddly out of its time. It is a skeptical, paradox-laden fiction about the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, of God and the Devil, of good and evil, and of the grounds and purposes of human destiny. Following the bewildered wanderings of St. Joseph--around whom God and Satan buzz like invisible gnats--and the even more bewildered wanderings of a highly irritated Jesus, it has its grand climax in a boat on the Sea of Galilee where God, Satan and Jesus sit for 40 days in the fog and argue.

It is the kind of bravura cascade of philosophical quizzicality and ingenious reversals that were featured a century or so ago in such varied writings as the Grand Inquisitor scene in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger” and Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell.” It is not much practiced nowadays--C. S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters” was 50 years ago--but perhaps that is a Portuguese writer’s privilege. Saramago is fully conscious of his national voice; at one point, referring to 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans after a rebellion, he observes that, if placed a mile apart, the crosses could circle Portugal, “which is not large.”

The Nativity part of the story is told with a lovely, displaced tenderness that focuses on Joseph rather than Mary. The young carpenter awakes in their hut--"an oil lamp is burning, but its flickering flame, like a small, luminous almond, barely impinges on the darkness"--goes outdoors to urinate, sees the sky blaze oddly, is aroused and returns to make love to his wife. In Saramago’s “Gospel,” which caused considerable scandal in Portugal, not only is Mary not a virgin but the conception of Jesus is a commingling of her husband’s seed with God’s. Saramago’s Jesus is fully sexual; later he will become, in effect, Mary Magdalene’s husband.


Furthermore, this Jesus bears his own version of Original Sin. Joseph, hearing of Herod’s plan to kill the first-born male babies, is too intent on saving his son to warn others. From that time until he redeems himself by a supreme act of charity that will get him crucified at the age of 33--another displacement--he will dream that he is leading soldiers to kill Jesus. Jesus will dream that his father is coming to kill him. It foreshadows the climactic argument in the boat when God, his other father, tells him of his mission.

Satan appears early, as an angel attending the nativity. Later, as a mysterious shepherd, he will employ Jesus for four wilderness years, discharging him only when the young man sacrifices one of the sheep to God, who appears as a column of smoke. Satan, unlike his rival, is strictly anti-violence. Jesus’s story skips along. He settles down with Mary Magdalene, goes out with the Galilee fishermen, begins to perform miracles. They are awkward and comic; he has no idea what they are for or what he is supposed to be doing.

The Galilee fog-summit--one more of Saramago’s nicely implanted ironies--will clarify matters. God tells Jesus that He is tired of being worshiped only by the Jews. He has created a Son to be a divine victim whose death will vastly enlarge the numbers of the faithful. Satan sits sardonically silent; his presence is required since whenever God’s kingdom is enlarged, so is the devil’s. Jesus objects vigorously but he has no choice. He does get God to list all the agony that will ensue from his own sacrifice. We read a three-page list of martyrs, followed by mentions of religious wars and the Inquisition. “One has to be God to countenance so much bloodshed,” Satan mutters, and offers to repent, give up his power and become an angel again. Evil will end and sacrifices will not be needed. God refuses “because the good I represent cannot exist without the evil you represent, if you were to end, so would I. . . .”

The notion is hardly new. Saramago spins his web around what is by now a venerable paradox. The results are not always good; quite apart, of course, from the fact that he is playing exclusive left field in a wider literary-philosophical stadium where the devil has some of the best lines but not all of them. Sometimes Saramago’s disputations seem forced. His narrative can be original and resplendent--Joseph is a rare and luminous creation--but it too can seem forced. We may realize, in fact, what remarkable story-tellers Matthew, Mark and Luke were. Over the centuries, their stories have allowed all kinds of illuminating variations. And despite its sporadic creaks, Saramago’s contrarian version, beautifully translated by Giovanni Pontiero, is illuminated by ferocious wit, gentle passion and poetry.