The Keening Fantasist

In the NYT Magazine, Fernanda Eberstadt profiles José Saramago:

Saramago is the kind of old-fashioned atheist who is hopping mad at a God who he believes does not exist. His novel’s starting point is the Massacre of the Innocents, when Herod, the Roman king of Judea, learns that the future king of the Jews has just been born in Bethlehem and orders that all the baby boys in that village be slaughtered. In Saramago’s telling, Joseph, husband of Mary, overhears the collective death sentence by chance and manages to hide his own son while leaving the others to perish. It is therefore in atonement for his earthly father’s sin in indirectly colluding with Herod’s iniquity, as well as for God’s in allowing the massacre to occur, that Jesus is later forced to give his life. (The amateur Freudian may wonder if there isn’t an echo here of a Communist son’s guilt at his father’s serving as a policeman under Salazar.) On the cross, Saramago’s Jesus asks humankind to forgive God his sins.

“The Gospel” polarized readers, both in Portugal and abroad, and led to Saramago’s self-imposed symbolic exile in the Canary Islands. The effect on Saramago’s work has been stark. His Canary Island novels are denuded of all the aching particularity, the clamor, reek and clutter of his Portugal works: austere and monitory parables, they often take place in an allegorical urban landscape as stylized as a computer game. In a book like “Las Intermitencias de la Muerte,” which will be published in the United States in the spring, his subject is nothing less than the folly of man’s search for eternal life.