CAIN by Jose Saramago

Book Quote:

“Only a madman unaware of what he was doing would admit to being directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people and then behave as if nothing had happened.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (OCT 4, 2011)

Saramago’s last, indeed posthumous, book is a real treat. Brief, inventive, funny, it furthers the author’s well-known distaste for religious dogma by traversing many of the familiar stories of the Old Testament by means of a fanciful parable told from a rational point of view. Much like The Elephant’s Journey, it shows Saramago’s stylistic fingerprints in relaxed form. There are still the run-on sentences, but they are the product of irrepressible exuberance rather than philosophic density. There is a lot more dialogue than usual, but, liberated by the author’s minimal punctuation, it propels the page forward rather than breaking it up. And his avoidance of capitals (except to start sentences and dialogue) has the familiar effect of demystifying his various beings — most especially god — making them earn respect rather than being granted it automatically. He treats the lord as an omnipotent but rather amateur bungler, forever tinkering with his unsatisfactory creation, as here with Noah’s ark:

“God was not there for the launch. He was busy examining the planet’s hydraulic system, checking the state of the valves, tightening the odd loose screw that was dripping where it shouldn’t, testing the various local distribution networks, keeping an eye on the manometers, as well as dealing with tens of myriads of other tasks, large and small, each of them more important than the last, and which only he, as creator, engineer and administrator of the universal mechanisms, was in a position to carry out and to which only he could give the sacred ok.”

Saramago’s most audacious stroke is to choose the outcast murderer Cain as his protagonist. He has him argue successfully that at least half the blame for Abel’s murder should be shouldered by god (let’s stick with lowercase) for his unreasonable provocation. Condemned to wander the earth as a kind of compromise, Cain finds the rest of the Middle East quite adequately populated already; it appears that the Garden of Eden was not the beginning of anything, simply god’s private experiment. Other than an extended amorous interlude with the capricious Queen Lilith, Cain will jump around in the Bible story, turning up at most of the key events of Genesis, and several from other books of the Old Testament also. Sometimes he gets there only in the nick of time, as when the official angel arrives too late to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac, and Cain himself has to intervene.

The middle sections of the book are rather episodic, and I was not entirely convinced by Saramago’s choice of just these episodes in just that order. But it gradually becomes clear that Cain’s role is to be a witness, and — murderer though he is — a moral conscience that Saramago’s god himself lacks. The chosen stories focus on god’s capriciousness, apparent unconcern for human life, and willingness to accept any amount of collateral damage in pursuit of his goals. Cain cannot understand how the killing of one’s son can be a worthwhile test of anything; would god be willing to sacrifice his own son? (Well, yes.) How can god think that giving Job another set of sons and daughters can replace the ones he has arbitrarily destroyed, as though family, like wealth, were a fungible commodity? Cain is haunted by the cries of the innocent children slaughtered along with their Sodomite parents. He leaves Joshua’s army in horror at the massacre of combatants and non-combatants alike, and the capture of virgins for other purposes. Finally, having been brought onto the ark by Noah, he takes matters into his own hands directly, standing up to god once more face-to-face.

So a fun book with a serious message. From any other writer, it would be a wonder; from Saramago, though, little more than a jeu d’esprit. Compared to his rewriting of the New Testament in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a complex book which proves by no means hostile to religion even while denouncing the official manifestations of it, this seems little more than a whimsical after-dinner entertainment. But I would have happily gone to dinner with Saramago any time, and listened to his stories for as long as he cared to tell them. (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 25 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; None edition (October 4, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on José Saramago
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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October 4, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Alternate History, Humorous, Satire, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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