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Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Mario de Queiroz
LISBON, Oct 21 2009 (IPS) - After a nearly two-decade truce, Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago has returned to the charge against the Catholic Church. This time his target is the Bible itself, which he describes as “a manual of bad morals,” and a “catalogue of cruelties and of the worst of human nature.”
“About the holy book, I tend to say: read the Bible and you’ll lose your faith,” said the first, and so far only, Portuguese-language writer to receive the Nobel Literature Prize, which he won in 1998.
In a meeting with the press Wednesday, Saramago repeated the ideas he expressed at an event Sunday in the northern Portuguese town of Penafiel, held to launch his latest book, “Cain”, which retells the story of Adam and Eve’s first-born son in a light-hearted, irreverent tone.
According to Saramago, there is nothing “divine” in the Bible. And although “Cain” has offended the Church, it won’t offend Catholics, he said, because “they don’t read the Bible.”
It took “a thousand years and dozens of generations” to write the Bible, which depicts a “cruel, spiteful, vengeful, jealous and unbearable God,” said the writer, who recommended people not to trust “the God depicted in the Bible.”
He said he would not have to settle accounts with God, because “the human brain is a great creator of absurd notions, and God is the most absurd one of all.”
Catholic Church officials lashed out at the writer’s statements, especially when he said that “without the Bible, we would be different, probably better, people,” and that he could not understand how the Bible became a “spiritual guide, when it’s so full of horrors, incest, betrayals and slaughter.”
“I’m not looking for controversy, but I have a few convictions and I say certain things. None of this is free: Cain has kept me company for many years,” Saramago responded to a question from IPS.
Writing this book “was an exercise in freedom for me,” said the polemical, provocative writer, who at the age of 86 maintains his rebelliousness intact – the same rebelliousness he showed when he joined the Communist Party, which was driven underground by Portugal’s 1926-1974 dictatorship, in 1969.
Saramago has ruffled many feathers over the years. He made Israel furious when he compared the Israeli military campaign in the besieged Palestinian West Bank to Auschwitz, and irritated Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when he described him as “this thing, this illness, this virus (that) threatens to become the cause of the moral death of the country of Verdi” and could “end up corroding the veins and destroying the heart of one of Europe’s richest cultures.”
He also had a few choice words for Pope Benedict XVI, saying “Ratzinger has the nerve to invoke God to reinforce his universal neo-medievalism.”
In addition, he distanced himself from the Communists when he said Cuba “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams.”
Another of his provocative ideas, expressed in one of his books, is that Portugal and Spain will one day merge into a united Iberia.
The 181-page Cain, which he wrote in four months and which hit the bookshelves simultaneously in Portuguese, Spanish and Catalonian on Monday, is according to Saramago, “an insurrection, an exhortation for everyone to dare to look for what is on the other side of things,” aimed at getting readers to think and reflect, because “we are manipulated all the time. We have to fight against that.”
His latest work also aims subtle barbs at contemporary issues, like the global economic crisis and its effect on unemployment, the rights of gays and lesbians, and the accumulation of wealth “in the name of the Lord.”
In 1991, with the publication of “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”, Saramago infuriated the Church, which was backed in the row by the conservative government of then prime minister (and current president) Aníbal Cavaco Silva, which ended up vetoing the book’s presentation for the European Literary Prize on the argument that it was offensive to Catholics.
The book portrays Jesus Christ as a fallible, rebellious young man and hints at a more intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene.
At the time, the Portuguese government drew broad criticism from democrats within and outside Portugal for its censorship.
In response to the censorship, Saramago moved in symbolic–self exile to Spain’s Canary Islands, where he still lives today.
In the current controversy, which would appear to be far from over, the spokesman for Portugal’s bishops’ conference, Jesuit priest Manuel Morujão, said the whole thing was a “publicity stunt” mounted by the writer to drive up sales of Cain, which he said he had not read because “it is not one of my priorities.”
Morujão said the “offensive” terms used by Saramago to refer to the Bible “hurt the feelings of millions of Catholics around the world.” He also said the author “does not have sufficient knowledge” of the Bible to write about it.
A higher-level Catholic authority, Bishop Manuel Clemente of Oporto, Portugal’s second-largest city, urged the author to “be more careful and better informed” when writing about Biblical events.
Saramago responded by saying he was surprised by “the superficiality of the gentlemen of the Church, who did not read the book, but with unusual speed began to spread opinions and dismissive insults about it and its author.”
Father Morujão “said reading Cain is not one of his priorities. His frankness is appreciated, but it’s still strange when a spokesman does not know what he is talking about.”
“In terms of a lack of intellectual rigor, you could not ask for worse,” said the writer.
At the same time, Saramago said it is not against God that he is writing, “because he does not exist,” but that his stance is against religions, “because they do not, and have never, helped bring people together.”
In the writer’s view, “God only exists in our minds.”
His book points out that in the Old Testament, Cain killed his younger brother Abel in a fit of jealousy after God preferred his brother’s sacrifice of sheep to his.
“None of that happened, it’s obvious that they’re myths invented by man, just like God, a creation of men. All I do is lift up the stones and show the reality hidden beneath them,” said Saramago.
He said Cain is a book written “against any and all religions,” because throughout history, “all religions, without exception, have done humanity more bad than good.”
Visão magazine’s review of the book describes it is an ironic, provocative and irreverent work which, despite the humour in some parts, points to injustices, cruelties, limitations of free will and incongruities in the book of Genesis.
In Saramago’s book, Cain travels through time, witnessing events like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Great Flood and the construction of Noah’s Ark, the fall of Jericho, and the conflict between God and Satan. He also keeps Abraham from stabbing his son Isaac.
Saramago concludes: “Yes, reader, that’s what it really says. The Lord ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son, as casually as someone asking for a glass of water when they’re thirsty…The logical, natural or simply human thing would have been for Abraham to tell the Lord to go to hell.”
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