Cain Hardcover – Sep 21 2011
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Review"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
About the Author
JOSE 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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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