Sunday, May 23, 2004


José Saramago was born in 1922 to a family of farmers in the little village of Azinhaga (Ribatejo) north of Lisbon. For financial reasons he abandoned his high-school studies and trained as a mechanic. After trying different jobs in the civil service, he worked for a publishing company for twelve years and then for newspapers, at one time as assistant editor of Diário de Notícias, a position he was forced to leave after the political events in November 1975. In 1969 he joined the then illegal Communist Party, in which however he has always adopted a critical standpoint. Between 1975 and 1980 Saramago supported himself as a translator but since his literary successes in the 1980s he has devoted himself to his own writing. His international breakthrough came in 1982 with the blasphemous and humorous love story "Baltasar and Blimunda", a novel set in 18th century Portugal. Since 1992 he has been living on Lanzarote, the northeasternmost of the Canaries. Saramago's oeuvre totals 30 works, and comprises not only prose but also poetry, essays and drama. His awards include Prémio Cidade de Lisboa 1980, Prémio PEN Club Português 1983 and 1984, Prémio da Crítica da Associação Portuguesa 1986, Grande Prémio de Romance e Novela 1991, Prémio Vida Literária 1993, Prémio Camões 1995. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998.

Excerpt of "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ".
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero.

Jesus was prepared and showed no surprise when the woman asked him his name as she rubbed ointment into the sores on his foot, which rested on her lap. I am Jesus he replied, without adding, of Nazareth, for he had said so earlier, just as the woman who lived here was clearly from Magdala, and when he asked her name, she replied only Mary. Having carefully examined and dressed his injured foot, Mary Magdalene tied the bandage with a firm knot That should do, she said. How can I thank you, asked Jesus, and for the first time his eyes met hers, eyes black and bright as coals, also like water running over water, veiled with a sensuality that Jesus found irresistible. The woman did not answer at once, she looked at him as if weighing him, the boy obviously had no money, at length she said, Remember me, that is all I ask, and Jesus assured her, I will never forget your kindness, and then, summoning his courage, Nor will I forget you. Why do you say that, she asked, smiling. Because you are beautiful. You should have seen me in my youth. You are beautiful as you are. Her smile faded, Do you know what I am, what I do, how I earn my living. I do. You only had to look at me, and you knew everything. I know nothing. Not even that I'm a prostitute. That I know. I sleep with men for money. Yes. Then, as I said, you know everything about me. That is all I know. The woman sat down beside him, gently stroked his hand, touched his mouth with the tips of her fingers, If you really want to thank me, spend the day here with me. I cannot, Why, I have no money to pay you, That's no surprise. Please do not mock me. You may not believe me, but I'd sooner mock a man with a full purse. It's not only a question of money. What is it, then. Jesus fell silent and turned his face away. She made no attempt to help him, she could have asked, Are you a virgin, but said nothing and waited. The silence was so great, only their hearts could be heard beating, his louder and faster hers restless and agitated. Jesus said, Your hair reminds me of a flock of goats descending the mountain slopes of Gilead. The woman smiled but said nothing. Then Jesus said, Your eyes are like the pools of Heshbon by the Gate of Bath-Rabim. The woman smiled again but still said nothing. Then Jesus slowly turned to look at her and said, I have never been with a woman. Mary held his hands, This is how everyone has to begin, men who have never known a woman, women who have never known a man, until the day comes for the one who knows to teach the one who does not. Do you wish to teach me. So that you may thank me a second time. In this way, I will never stop thanking you. And I will never stop teaching you. Mary got to her feet, went to lock the gate, but only after hanging a sign outside, to tell any clients who might come looking for her that she had closed her window because it was now the hour to sing, Awake, north wind, and come, you south, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out, let my beloved come into his garden and eat his pleasant fruits. Then together, Jesus' hand once more on the shoulder of Mary, this whore from Magdala who dressed his sores and is about to receive him in her bed, they went inside, into the welcome shade of a clean, fresh room. Her bed was no primitive mat on the floor with a coarse sheet on top, the sort Jesus remembered from his parents' house, this was a real bed, as once described elsewhere, I have adorned my bed with covers and embroidered sheets of Egyptian linen, I have perfumed my couch with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Leading Jesus to the hearth, with its floor of brick, Mary Magdalene insisted on removing his tunic and washing him herself, stroking his body with her fingertips and kissing him softly on the chest and thighs, first one side, then the other. The delicate touch of hands and lips made Jesus shiver, the nails grazing his skin gave him gooseflesh, Don't be frightened, she whispered. She dried him and led him to the bed, Lie down I'll be with you in a moment. She drew a curtain, there was the sound of splashing water, a pause, perfume filled the air, and Mary reappeared, completely naked. Jesus too was naked, lying as she had left him, he thought, This must be right, for to cover the body she had uncovered would give offense. Mary lingered at the side of the bed gazed on him with an expression both passionate and tender, and told him, You are so handsome, but to be perfect you must close your eyes. Jesus hesitantly closed them, opened them again, and in that moment he understood the true meaning of King Solomon's words, Your thighs are like jewels, your navel is like a round goblet filled with scented wine, your belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies, your breasts are like two fawns that are the twins of a gazelle, and he understood them even better when Mary lay down beside him and took his hands in hers, and drew them to her, and guided them slowly over her body, her hair, face, neck, shoulders, her breasts, which he gently squeezed, her belly, navel, her lower hair, where he lingered, twining and untwining it with his fingers, then the curve of her smooth thighs, and as she moved his hands, she repeated in a whisper, Come, discover my body, come discover my body. Jesus breathed so fast, for one moment he thought he would faint when her hands, the left hand on his forehead, the right hand on his ankles, began caressing him, slowly coming together, meeting in the middle, then starting all over again. You've learned nothing, begone with you, Pastor had told him, and who knows, perhaps he meant to say that Jesus had not learned to cherish life. Now Mary Magdalene instructed him, Discover my body, and she said it again, but in a different way, changing one word, Discover your body, and there it was, tense, taut, roused, and she, naked and magnificent, was above him and saying, There is nothing to fear, do not move, leave this to me. Then he felt part of him, this organ, disappearing inside her, a ring of fire around it, coming and going, a shudder passed through him, like a wriggling fish slipping free with a shout, surely impossible, fish do not shout, no, it was he, Jesus, crying out as Mary slumped over his body with a moan and absorbed his cry with her lips, with a hungry kiss that sent a second, unending shudder through him.

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