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Cain [Hardcover]

José Saramago , Margaret Jull Costa
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 4 2011
“Saramago juxtaposes an eminently readable narrative of work and poverty, class and desire, knowledge and timelessness—one in which God, too, as he faces Cain in the wake of Noah's Ark, emerges as far more human than expected.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In this, his last novel, José Saramago daringly reimagines the characters and narratives of the Old Testament, recalling his provocative The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. His tale runs from the Garden of Eden, when God realizes he has forgotten to give Adam and Eve the gift of speech, to the moment when Noah’s Ark lands on the dry peak of Ararat. Cain, the despised, the murderer, is Saramago’s protagonist.

Condemned to wander forever after he kills his brother Abel, Cain makes his way through the world in the company of a personable donkey. He is a witness to and participant in the stories of Isaac and Abraham, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Moses and the golden calf, the trials of Job. The rapacious Queen Lilith takes him as her lover. An old man with two sheep on a rope crosses his path. And again and again, Cain encounters a God whose actions seem callous, cruel, and unjust. He confronts Him, he argues with Him. “And one thing we know for certain,” Saramago writes, “is that they continued to argue and are arguing still.”

A startling book—sensual, funny—and in all ways a fitting end to Saramago’s extraordinary career.

“A winkingly blasphemous retelling of the Old Testament . . . Saramago, playfully stretching his chatty late style, pokes holes in the stated logic of the Biblical God throughout the novel.” —The New Yorker

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"Cain's vagabond journey builds to a stunning climax that, like the book itself, is a fitting capstone to a remarkable career."
-Publishers Weekly, starred

  "Saramago transforms familiar stories boldly, but with an intricate respect for their power and for the mysterious power of storytelling itself. Far from merely inverting the biblical tales or turning them inside out, he folds and refolds them in a prismatic, shadowly light."-Robert Pinsky, New York Times Book Review

About the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Saramago is always fresh Oct. 16 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For some, perhaps too fresh. But I find his insights wonderfully stirring and Cain is no exception. My casual acquaintance with the Biblical story is enriched by the challenging and insightful sentences. Blindness was my introduction to his writings ... and that was twenty tites ago. This was my twenty-first volume and he has not disappointed me yet.
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subversive, Allegorical and Brilliant! Sept. 5 2011
By Elaine Campbell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This tour de force has got to be the most radically different kind of book since the creation of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (most likely a brother in spirit). This work, though, is more readable despite its encompassing stylistic forays into the no-no's of grammar and punctuation. What I'm saying is "Hold onto your hats, you've never read anything like it."

cain is the protagonist (and I purposely do not capitalize his name as no names are capitalized in the world of Jose Saramago, at least not in this story) and it is to be remembered that cain's extraordinary journey through the world of the Old Testament is pre-Biblical. He has no points of reference (no footnotes, no exegeses, no internet commentaries) but his own direct reactive experiences to the events he witnesses by some mysterious decree (even God is puzzled by its source).

And what events he witnesses (and even plays a main role in some of them)! After killing his brother, something which he never ceases to regret, God sentences him to wander the earth (a la the ocean's Flying Dutchman, but without any seven years' chance of redemption, however slim), and in his peregrinations he meets up with no less than Abraham, Joshua, Noah and witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, among other catastrophic events. Let's face it. He doesn't think much of God, and doesn't mind telling him so. God's opinion of cain is mutual. The unresolvedness of this shared state is at the heart of this story. And their differences of opinion perpetuate to this day.

Certainly the fact that Saramago was an atheist and a libertarian communist colored his weltanschauung. When the Portuguese government censored his book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, he relocated from his native country to the Canary Islands. Neither did he win a popularity contest with the Catholic Church.

Stylistically, the innovations in this book include paragraphs some running for many pages, commas to divide sentences, rather than periods, a new speaker denoted only by an initial capital letter of a word, names, as I mentioned, are not capitalized, yet some words, such as Mother and Father, are capitalized. At first it seems a bit puzzling, but as one reads on it becomes a flow of sorts, an interior drifting that eventually becomes appealing. I believe that because of these innovations, an intensity is sustained because of the scarcity of breaks (halts) in the narrative.

So here we've got a book by a genius, no doubt. As an allegory, I miss the well-rounded human, and yet reading it is kind of like getting a sock in the teeth. "Take that!" says Saramago.

With pleasure, replies the reader. At least this one.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Saramago on the Old Testament Sept. 5 2011
By H. F. Corbin - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Jose Saramago , it is safe to say, does not have much use for the god of the Old Testament. In his final novel, where there are no upper-case letters except for the words that start a sentence, he takes the reader on a journey with Cain after he was punished by God to be a wanderer and roam the earth after he killed his brother Abel. Through what the narrator calls "time travelling shifts," Cain is able to be a witness to and often a participant in some of the other events of the Old Testament: the Isaac and Abraham story, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joshua at Jericho, the plight of Job and Noah's ark and the Flood.

Saramago with wit and sarcasm fleshes out the Old Testament stories. He reminds the reader that the term "Adam's apple" came about because Mr. Adam got a piece of the forbidden fruit lodged in his throat , the fruit given to him by the "first lady." The narrator declares that "the lord showed a lamentable lack of foresight, because if he really didn't want them to eat that fruit, it would have been easy enough simply not to have planted the tree or to have put it somewhere else or surrounded it with barbed wire."

People at the Tower of Babel, "without the aid of dictionaries or interpreters" are speaking in a confusing number of languages including, "who would have thought it, in portuguese," a nice touch on the part of the author. But he shines in his take on Noah and the Flood. The worker angels, whose task it is to get the ark afloat, relate to Cain just how boring heaven is with all the angels proclaiming the Lord's greatness. "It's high time that these. . . began to experience the simple joys of ordinary people." And if we are to interpret the word "flesh" broadly, shouldn't there be unicorns, the phoenix, the hippogryph, the centaur, the minotaur, the basilisk, the chimera and the donkey included in the roundup of the animals into the ark? (I personally was hoping that at least a pair of dinosaurs would make the cut!)

God is portrayed as vengeful, jealous, wicked; "he doesn't understand us and we don't understand him." When I finished this short novel (150 pages ) by one of the world's great writers, I thought of who would find Saramago's retelling of some of the stories from the Old Testament abominable. Certainly Pat Robertson comes to mind. Robert Frost, however, would love this book since he mused that if God would forgive his little joke on him, then he would certainly forgive God's big joke on him. David Lindsay, the author of the play "Rabbit Hole" would be a fan as well as he lets his character who lost a young son declare that if God just needed another angel, why wouldn't he just make one.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Frightening View of Saramago's God Oct. 6 2011
By T. Gibert - Published on
What do you get when the Book of Genesis mates with everyone's favorite time-traveller, Doctor Who? It's a riddle with many answers, and mine is CAIN.

CAIN narrates the life of the eponymous Biblical persona, beginning with his parents: Adam and Eve have their falling-out with God and begin to make their way in a dusty, sinful world. The author has his fun with this classic story, teasing out the absurdity and emphasizing Adam and Eve's humanity. Adam and Eve wink saucily at each other when God clothes them because, duh, how could they NOT see their nudity?

But nude there were and nude they will be, and Cain and Abel will be born and one of them will die. After Cain slices his brother's throat, God curses him to wander the earth forever. This is where Saramago's talent and his own bitter feelings for the Biblical narrative begin to shine through Cain's wanderings and witnessings. Oh, and this is where it gets a little like Doctor Who.

Cain wanders in and out of the Book of Genesis, in and out of time, and in and out of the lives of our most beloved Biblical stories: Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the Tower of Babel; Noah's ark. Saramago takes the stories we've sung for generations and shows them through Cain's eyes. And what does Cain see? An untrustworthy, confusing, and destructive God who punishes good as evil and wagers with Satan (poor Job scrapes at the wounds on his body with a potsherd).

It is God as Saramago sees Him, and it is terrifying. So Saramago retells the stories as a reasonable, conscientious human might interpret them. He takes great advantage of all the seemingly impossible bits of the Biblical story. If Lot were drunk enough for his daughters to "trick" him into having sex with them, he would have been too drunk to consummate these unions. If Noah's ark were filled with every living creature, how could it float? And who would clean all the excrement of all those animals? If anything, CAIN illustrates why the Bible should still be read and reinterpreted and discussed; it is not black and white. It is nearly magical in the way it holds different things for different people.

Readers, one request: please do not give this book a negative review simply because it is, yes, subversive, yes, blasphemous. Just don't read it. If the blasphemy doesn't bother you, DO READ IT.
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A quick, playful read - but to what end? Sept. 6 2011
By K. Sullivan - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
"Cain" is an irreverent retelling/revisioning of several Old Testament tales. Starting in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, the story soon moves on to their progeny and the novel's namesake, Cain. It is primarily from his viewpoint that the rest of the tales are communicated. After murdering his brother, Abel, and finding temporary asylum in Nod, Cain is imbued with a supernatural ability to wander across time and space so that he witnesses a number of hallmark biblical events. The short book, approximately 150 pages, covers various anecdotes in no more than a few pages each (Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses and the golden calf at Sinai, Joshua at Jericho and the subsequent battles of Ai, and the defeat of the Amorites). Only a couple stories have any notable length (Job's trials at 12 pages and Noah's ark and the subsequent flood at 24 pages). Much of the remainder of the book is set in Nod where Cain experiences the joys of the flesh with the lusty Lilith.

The writing style is minimalist. Proper nouns aren't capitalized. Dialogue frequently runs together without attribution separated only by comma and capital letter. The narration is playfully self-aware. Saramago points out his own anachronistic use of the word "hour" and routinely references modern conveniences in his descriptions and analogies (e.g. pharmaceuticals, hotels, restaurants, films/movies). The pithy work boasts a derisive, perhaps dismissive, tone. Cain questions, or, more correctly, disputes the goodness of the Hebrew god. His criticisms are presented as self-evident. There's no reasoning or philosophizing, just assertion and affirmation. "A good or benevolent god would not behave or act in this fashion, as anyone must see." "Here is one more proof of god's capriciousness and confirmation of his patent unworthiness." The problem with this presentation is that, when confronted with these tales, not everyone reaches the same conclusions. One's extant beliefs or mindset will be scarcely tested or bolstered by the experience of reading "Cain."

So what does this story accomplish? Saramago's intent clearly wasn't didactic but I was hoping for more wisdom and content nonetheless. Those seeking only an entertaining yarn may be completely satisfied (although I do wonder how a work boasting very little substantive originality merits effusive praise). Surely there aren't many readers who turn to Old Testament tales of slaughter to be entertained. Unfortunately Saramago was content to seek cheap laughs rather than provide meaningful or unsettling commentary. Much more could have been done with the material. Conjure in the reader the horror and injustice of being asked to sacrifice one's own son. Impart to the reader a sense of the boredom of singing praise for eternity. Make the reader ache for the "innocents" slaughtered in Sodom, etc. Saramago doesn't even try... which is too bad.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A testament to Saramago Sept. 13 2011
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
God is ineffable, say his disciples. In Saramago's recreation of the old testament, god is snide, foppish, vicious, capricious, puerile, contemptuous, crabby, and a slouch at multi-tasking (and no iconic capital letters for this merry band of pranksters). This short but adventure-packed novella presents a new twist on the story of cain, the fratricidal brother. Weed out all the boring parts of Genesis, feature all the greatest hits, and place cain as the ubiquitous character. Actually, cain even shows up at events that god is too distracted to attend (and his angels are stuck in traffic?).

In addition to being an erudite little gem, this story is full of slicing irony mixed with slapstick humor and dry, bone-dry, desert-dry wit. He's too subtle to just rant on the lord. Saramago seems to be peeking out of the corners of the pages, winking at the reader, offering a sly smile. As an arch example, Eve calls herself the First Lady of Paradise.

Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, was an ardent atheist, who said that the Bible is a handbook of bad morals. He also impugns a "cruel, jealous, and inhumane God (who) exists only in our heads." In 1992, a scandal erupted after The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was published, whose characterization of God didn't conform to certain pieties, so Saramago happily moved to the Spanish Canary Islands, where he lived until his death in 2010. He didn't think CAIN would offend Catholics, though, "because they don't read the Bible."

This is his final contribution to the world of literature. Although not his most superlative--by definition it is contained--it is still masterful, and had me laughing with glee at intervals. Check out his 1995 Blindness for a novel of unsurpassed beauty, staggering tragedy, and stunning redemption.
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