The death of José Saramago at 87 brings to an end the career not only of arguably the greatest novelist of the last quarter century, but of a great political novelist. It was often noted that Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist party in 1968 and never resigned his membership, but most critics didn’t know how to square Saramago’s Marxism with his fiction. His politics, however, suffuse most of his novels. Even the ostensibly unpolitical Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, from 1986, amounted to a friendly quarrel with Saramago’s beloved Fernando Pessoa over the attractions of the latter’s quietism; the beauty, the consolation, and the mad loneliness of Pessoa’s profoundly ingrown personality, or personalities, acquired new and special definition against the background of Salazar’s emerging dictatorship. As for the premise of Death With Interruptions, from 2005, according to which the people of a nameless country simply stop dying as of one New Year’s Eve, this was not a mere magic-realist conceit but the framework for a meditation on the gray capitalism of aging European societies. The Cave, from 2001, despite an epigraph from The Republic, was a novel as much about reification in the Marxist as in the Platonic sense.
Saramago’s political anger sometimes got the better of him, as when he denounced Israeli incursions into the West Bank in 2002 in notably ugly and hysterical terms. The most profound things he had to say about the so-called Holy Land lay elsewhere, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, from 1991. In that deliberately blasphemous novel, Jesus is browbeaten and finally tricked by a petulant and narcissistic God into offering his body up to the cross. Amid the precrucifixion negotiations, Jesus mildly enquires whether the sacrifice of his life will be the last that God demands. In reply, he receives from the mouth of God an appalling nine-page catalogue of martyrdom and massacre down through the centuries: surely one of the angriest and most indelible passages in contemporary literature, with the merit of being almost equally offensive to all three major monotheisms. Saramago’s Gospel also had a heretical take on original sin: the crime that Jesus must atone is not Adam’s, but his father Joseph’s, when the latter, having learned, according to Saramago, of Herod’s planned massacre of the innocents, chose not to warn the other families of Bethlehem, and instead to spare only his own son. Original sin, then, was not sex or disobedience or forbidden knowledge, but to look after one’s own while letting others perish.
For a fuller consideration of Saramago’s work by Benjamin Kunkel, see here, from 2001.
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