The ego is a divine gift
2 July, 2020
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Interview with José Saramago

Interview conducted by Sander de Vaan, originally published in Diario 16.


Why did you title your novel “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”, if he is not a narrator?

In 1987, when I was much more myopic than now, I was crossing a street in Seville, looking everywhere at the cars, and in all that confusion I saw a kiosk and read, in Portuguese, which is very rare in Seville, the title from a book: “The Gospel according to Jesus Christ”. I kept walking, I stopped, I went back to check it, but there was nothing, it was an optical illusion. Later, I thought about it and wrote this book, but I couldn’t change the title anymore, because it was born that way.

The novel is a reflection of a non-Christian on Christianity, why did he write it?

I am not a believer, I do not believe in the existence of God, and precisely for this reason I am very interested. For me, the churches, all, are the instrument of an earthly power, and not transcendent. They were invented by men in the name of an omnipotent God, and therefore they kill each other, so that one day they will sit before God, who will have to choose between all or his own. I do not want to defend anyone, but it seems absurd to imagine that the only God is that of the Jews and that he will choose the Jews to accompany him for all eternity, while the Christians will go to hell, or vice versa. If God exists, it would be one, it makes no sense to imagine that one God created whites, and another God invented blacks or yellows.

But in his book there are several gods, and the God of the Jewish people wants to eliminate the others …

Yes, when man fights in the name of God against another man, it is as if in the minds of these men a God is fighting against another God. So, my fiction is to imagine a God who, being the God of a small town, wants to turn to a universal God. That is why he chooses a martyr, because some things need martyrs, and there we have a young man whom that God coldly chooses to build upon his blood, his sacrifice, a great power.

And the young man in his novel feels immensely saddened by this divine choice …

Because he doesn’t understand what they want from him. There is the paradigm of a humanity that seeks itself, that seeks humanity in itself. Because I believe that we are not yet human beings, maybe one day we will be.

You have said that you are not a believer, do you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic?

Philosophically I am an atheist, but that does not mean much because my mentality is that of a Christian. I cannot have another, I was born in a country and a culture impregnated with Christianity. I can’t even imagine a society without God.

You have always defended the right to heresy, which, in your words, is “the denial of the truth to be believed.” Do you not now feel like a double heretic, because in addition to being an atheist you are a communist?

Well, we are living in a tragic time, but that has nothing to do with my beliefs. I think that maybe one day we can come to a way of living that is truly human. I really do not think I have to make a battle of my life against others, to feel completely happy. My whole being rejects that, since not all of us can have everything, it is necessary to eliminate others, to have more. Perhaps man is hopeless, but I want to think that we can reach a common sense of life in which there is social justice.

But can only social justice be achieved with communism?

I just can’t find any other ideology that gives me hope that this could happen. We are now living in a kind of capitalism akin to savage capitalism in the 19th century, and the consequences are there. Even in Europe, which is organized as a union, there are 18 million unemployed. So I ask myself: is man at the service of the economy, or is the economy at the service of man?

But make no mistake, “real communism” did not work at all …

No, it was a disaster, but that does not mean you should not start again. You have to assume mistakes and crimes, but that does not serve to think that everything is over. We must keep waiting, and above all, keep in mind that power, whatever it is, is always a risk. Although the power declares itself protector of the people, one must always suspect that this is not true. And the only way to lessen the malevolent consequences of the office of power is in the permanent intervention of the citizen, if not, the temptation of power to corrupt is fatal.

You have been very critical of the cultural capital of Lisbon, why?

I am against the “cultural capital” phenomenon. Just when Europe is experiencing a creativity crisis, cultural capitals are invented, which are a kind of cultural hypermarkets with a superficial cultural history. The cultural capital does not mean anything for the cultural future of Lisbon, its cultural reality is not that of this year, it was that of 1993, and it will be that of 1995.

But he even went so far as to say that a dead country cannot produce a living culture …

You have to understand the context in which I said that. My country is alive, it works, people are there, but we have no idea of ​​a future that is ours. We have always lived with extreme difficulty in being ourselves, but at this moment we depend on everything and everyone, and we have no more ideas than they tell us we should have. If I say that Portugal is dead, it is because we do not have a national project integrated into the international community. We live in a world of interdependence, but it is necessary that each country be what it is, and that it be in good or bad relationship with its neighbors, but that it be. So I fear that Portugal is heading for the worst possible death, which is death by resignation.

However, the culture is very alive, you yourself are considered one of the great innovators of Western narrative …

We have an old culture, and in that we are not dead. Culture is what nevertheless keeps us with something that is common to all. But as for our identity, that is, what are we going to do? Who are we what are we here for There is a great puzzlement. And if a country depends on everything and everyone, it can be said to be dead.

This year the “evolution of carnations” is 20 years old, what is left of it?

Something remains. We have a democracy, sometimes more formal than effective, there is freedom of expression. But there is little left of what many believed 20 years ago: that something could be instituted that we could call not real socialism, but concrete socialism. Today we are the poorest country in the European Union, and we have no choice but to accept the rules and consequences of a community power, which in the economic aspect is instituted with some characteristics very similar to the Soviet system. The Soviets were just bad apprentices, compared to what they are doing now in Europe.

How do you see the current relationship between Portugal and Spain?

Spain suffers from an amputation complex, because on the map it has to be presented as it is, if it is presented without Portugal it is very rare, amputated. So she tries to forget amputation, and the consequence is contempt. For our part, all ills always came from Spain. But things are changing. We can only get to know each other better through culture, politics is not for that. Franco and Salazar were, but we have not met yet …

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