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The gospel according to a Nobel novelist.

When Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago won the most recent Nobel Prize in Literature, someone in Vatican City didn't like it very much. Shortly after the announcement had been made in Stockholm, Sweden, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, criticized the Swedish Academy's decision as "yet another ideologically slanted award." Exactly what other Nobel awards they were alluding to is uncertain. Perhaps Mother Teresa when she won a Nobel in 1979 or Lech Walesa when he won a Nobel in 1983?

Admittedly, Saramago has a few strikes against him. For one, he--along with Fidel Castro and an ever dwindling handful of others-is a dedicated communist. However, since the takedown of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union--better known by Reaganites as the "Evil Empire"--communism is not a particularly popular ideology today. Nor does the continuing conferral of most-favored nation trade status on China suggest that communism is a particularly threatening contemporary political ideology. Here in the United States only little Cuba continues to jeopardize our land with apparent immanent concern of invasion and mass takeover of our democratic republic.

Perhaps even more problematic for those Vaticaneers who while away their evenings reading Nobel novelists in the shadow of the Eternal City is one particular Jose Saramago novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. First published in 1991, this novel, according to its dust jacket, "is a skeptic's wry inquest into the meaning of God and of human existence--the story of a savior who is at once the son of

God and a young man of this earth. Saramago's psychological portrait is an expert interweaving of poetry and irony, spirituality and irreverence."

In a previous age, someone in the Vatican could slap this story on the Index of Forbidden Books. "The Index," as it was popularly known, was a list of officially banned books. It first made its appearance in 1559 and was revised every so often until 1966 when Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani declared no further editions of the Index would be published.

I found The Gospel According to Jesus Christ fascinating. This book reminded me of Jewish storytelling, particularly their midrash, which imaginatively probes into unrecorded aspects of scriptural stories. Through this author's imaginative explorations into already familiar stories, many readers will inevitably be drawn back into the scriptural accounts of Christ's life. I also found it interesting and inspirational to see how a literary nonbeliever approaches and appreciates the life of Jesus and the stories of Christ.

Most of us had never heard of Jose Saramago until he became the Nobel Prize laureate last December. Had the Index still been functioning, perhaps we would have heard of Saramago years before he was brought to popular attention by the Swedish Academy.

Oh, for the good old days?

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1999
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