[14 December 2008]
It remains essential to the paradoxical nature of existence that only an atheist can write so beautiful and meaningful a theological masterpiece as José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. At the time of its 1992 publication, the work was barred against competing in the European Literature Prize by a government crying blasphemy.
The main problem, it seemed, was that Saramago portrayed Christ as an actual human being with real feelings, real problems, real doubt. Unlike what you’d expect from an atheist dealing with religious topics—perhaps we’d prepare for strong-worded refutations—Saramago instead created a heartfelt epic. To this set of eyes, it was more meaningful than the Bible—it taught me more about true Christianity—in that it made the man a man, and therefore accessible, instead of portraying him as some divine cosmonaut that we can never touch.
Saramago has a way of personifying subjects purported to be unfathomable. Take death, for instance, the topic of his latest work. Much like the book that most likely secured him the Nobel Prize for Literature, Blindness, Death with Interruptions shares common traits: there is no location (although it is easy to discern that it is Portugal), and the characters remain nameless. In this latest chapter of his literary quest, there is the cellist, the vigilantes, (and later the maphia—the “ph” distinguishes them from the traditional mafia), the prime minister, the cardinal, and, of course, death—he places emphasis on the lower-case “d”. The only thing we know about death is that she’s a woman and, by the end of the book, actually acquires feelings, not to mention the ability to sleep.
What Saramago loses in specifics he gains in ambiguity, putting readers right where he wants them. This is part of the reason he resisted a movie version of Blindness for so long; it took director Fernando Meirelles years of convincing (and rejection) to get the thumbs up. When something is vague, it is more likely to apply to a broader audience—Saramago’s novels are meditations to be experienced by those willing to journey down the labyrinthine mazes he constructs. He uses only commas and periods, and the occasional colon; dialogue, thought, narrative, first person, third person, these all blend and merge in one continuous monologue of sorts. It is rare to say that any author has found a truly original voice, but Saramago deserves such a citation.
Just as Saramago’s people become varying aspects of one person, so the events of his books come thickly and unapologetically layered with meaning. While we can summate the latest by saying that it involves man’s continual quest for eternal life, and the struggles one has with death, that is but a minor synopsis of a story that touches upon numerous and diverse facets of existence. To try to pinpoint one exact “meaning” is impossible, for the author has mastered the paradoxes of writing, and therefore sheds light on the paradoxes of life.
This does not imply that he is not without argument; he remains a staunch supporter of communism, and devoted atheist. But he is not afraid to attack the world’s ironies, like the pride roused by political leaders to send its nation’s citizens off to war, and all the corporate and theological consequences that involves. That sets the tone for Death with Interruptions, for on the New Year of some unnumbered year, death has stopped claiming her victims. For seven months there is no death within the borders of the country; people on the edge of crossing over, including the Queen Mother, hang in a form of purgatory that is neither life, nor death, just simply being. At the end of those months, in one fell swoop death claims all her victims at once.
In that sense, the book is divided into two parts, the deathless period, and the time after her return. While a country without death seems an Edenic getaway, it turns into its opposite. The religious leaders are the first concerned, for a country without death is a country without need for resurrection—their savior is rendered powerless. (As Carl Jung introduced, it is the process of enantiodromia, that every force inevitably produces its opposite.) After no deaths were recorded, the prime minister made a statement proclaiming “we will accept the challenge of the body’s immortality … if that is the will of god.”
Saramago labels the minister’s speech “pseudoscientific flim-flam”, what he would claim to be much of the verbiage from both governmental and religious bodies. After the speech hit airwaves, an unhappy cardinal calls to discuss the implications. “Without death, prime minister, without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.” He then questions how the man could ever entertain the notion that god would ever “will his own demise.” Throughout this and many of Saramago’s novels, this confronts the idea that any man could know the will of god, as religious leaders often declare as fact even when claiming god’s mysterious ways to be unknowable.
No one knows what to do when death leaves, and Saramago explores the most terrible and humorous of possibilities. The funeral industry is about to go under; they demand the government force everyone to hold burial ceremonies for all animals, including and especially pets, to keep afloat. (We need merely mention the American automobile and financial industries running to Washington to request help from papa government; Merriam Webster declared “bailout” to be the word of the year in 2008. I also recently watched a church in Detroit, the auto-making capital, sing hymns and pray in front of SUV’s parked in the pulpit.)
Yet people are suffering, those who were on the brink of death and left hanging when she took her powers from us. One ingenious family has the idea to take their grandfather and son, who although only a few years old is ready to pass on, and cross into a neighboring country. The moment the border is breached, the two men expire. This sets off a wave of “suicides”, and the government steps in to stop this—only on the main roads, of course. The maphia offers exile to those willing to pay.
Let’s quickly contemplate these two scenarios: those who partake in the “suicides” are immediately treated like fundamentalists lashing out at women supporting abortion; the government, by sealing off major exitways, is involved more in a PR initiative, which Saramago discusses. I know this concept well, living in a New York City where over the past five years I’ve watched policemen checking the bags of subway riders for “weapons of mass destruction” only set up at heavily populated stations, where they can be seen by the affluent to feel “safe”, because, you know, anyone with a bomb would never think of getting on a train at a station further from the city’s center.
Again, it is the ambiguity of Saramago’s characters and situations that make them applicable to so many aspects of life. He is not as concerned with a character as much as human character itself. Yet in the second half of the book he introduces the cellist, who is immune to death’s call. After her return she decided to announce her arrival to every human a week before their demise by sending them an index card in a violet envelope. The government goes on a witch hunt at post offices, never entertaining the fact that death merely thinks the letters into their addressee’s hands. Yet the cellist’s returns, time and again, and so death decides to take the form of a human body and visit the man.
The cellist, a rather lonely man who lives with his instruments and dog, falls in love with her. Our follies are never far away. The catch is, she starts to have feelings for him—we can’t call them love, but perhaps some form of infatuation; they do eventually make love. During a moment of complete confusion, Saramago writes one of the book’s most beautiful passages, at the moment she leaves her “freezing subterranean room” (like in Dante, hell is a cold place) to embody a body, where the author writes of her “gazing benevolently down on the human herd, watching them as they rush hither and thither, unaware that they’re heading in the same direction, that one step forward will take them just as close to death as one step back, that it makes no difference because everything will have just one ending, the ending that a part of yourself will always have to think about and which is the black stain on your hopeless humanity. Death is holding the index card in her hand.”
And that is his great power, making lavish and often unthinkable scenes (an entire city that goes blind with whiteness; a landlocked country that breaks free from its neighbor and floats into the ocean; Jesus as a human being) accessible to all of us. Death, the path we are all led to, regardless of religion, color, gender, etc. It’s such a simple statement, and yet we well know in practice many of us forget. Saramago’s quest for an unending life takes the form of Botox injections and oxygen tanks as much as in wars and church fundraisers.
The great irony is that, being humans as we are, if we did achieve this stature of eternal living, we wouldn’t know what to do with it, and end up misinterpreting the concept as much as we’ve misconstrued what it means to be alive. It’s safe to say that in Saramago’s world, life has no definitive meaning, but that does not mean we cannot give it plenty ourselves.