Book Review: Cain by José Saramago

In an Oxford lecture earlier this year, literary critic James Wood suggested that the “New Atheists” might be well served by looking to the modern novel. He says atheists — and some Christian fundamentalists — insist too much on polemic literalism. Novels, he said, are a vehicle to explore theological arguments and make real the often inherent contradictions of belief. And although Wood mentions 1998 Nobel Literature laureate José Saramago, a reader can’t help but wonder just where Saramago’s final novel, Cain, fits in that picture.

Cain is an assiduous indictment of the God of the Old Testament by re-imagining the brief tale the Bible tells of the title character. Saramago, who died last year, made his position clear on the book’s release in Europe in 2009. He said the Bible depicts a “cruel, spiteful, vengeful, jealous and unbearable God” and recommending people not trust that God. The book is Saramago’s extended literary argument on that point, frequently from Cain’s mouth.

Saramago’s story of Cain killing his brother Abel is just the starting point. God’s judgment after Abel’s death is for Cain to be “a restless wanderer.” In Saramago’s hands, he wanders the Book of Genesis, aided by the fact he can go back and forth in time. Cain visits the Tower of Babel, is present as Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac and joins Noah on the ark, but not in the chronological order in which these events appear in the Bible.

Throughout, it is clear that Cain is increasingly angered by what he perceives as God’s capriciousness and antipathy toward his creation, that he is an entity “who devours his own children.” In Saramago’s version of events, the devil and other fallen angels rebelled because God is evil. God “is not a person to be trusted” and the ease with which he orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac indicates such acts are “a deep-seated habit.” If anything, if God has a conscience, it is “so flexible” that it agrees with whatever God does, regardless of effect or ramifications. Cain even lays Abel’s murder at God’s feet, saying, “[Y]ou were the one who pronounced sentence, whereas I merely carried out the execution.” He believes “god should not go wasting his energies on creating an atmosphere of constant terror and fear,” particularly when he turns his back on the poor, unfortunate and wretched.

Cain is unquestionably tendentious. It is also a more blunt approach to a subject Saramago addressed in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, an irreverent re-imagination of Christ’s life in which Saramago also displayed some anger. Yet Saramago’s style keeps the book from straying completely into the category of screed. Although it sounds the same notes several times, Cain‘s indictment often reflects a touch of humor. For example, when Abraham suggests Isaac forget that he was willing to kill his son, Isaac responds, “I’m not sure that I can.” Likewise, as Cain ponders Abraham was about to do, he wonders if God would order his own son to be killed if he had one.

The book, being released in the U.S. in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa, who has been translating Saramago’s works for more than a decade, continues some of Saramago’s prior style idiosyncrasies. None of the proper names in the book are capitalized unless they begin a sentence or line of dialogue. This is not so much a tool of disrespect toward “god” as a necessity of style. Like many of his works, the novel contains long passages built not of sentences but long clauses separated only by commas. Especially since conversations are not delineated by quotation marks, it is only the capitalization of a word amidst one of these clauses that indicates the speaker has changed. What might appear as run-on sentences comes off almost as stream-of-consciousness conversation, although in Saramago’s and Costa’s hands the conversations have an almost colloquial feel. It does, though, take a bit of getting use to, especially for those who haven’t previously read much Saramago.

Cain isn’t plowing any new ground. Critics have long pointed out the God of the Old Testament and Torah seems cruel and unjust. And some Christians classify some of the harshest positions in the Old Testament as metaphorical, not literal, although 3 in 10 Americans view the Bible as the literal word of God. Saramago fans may enjoy the book but it does not rank with works like Blindness, All The Names or Death with Interruptions. Whether relative newcomers to the Saramago oeuvre appreciate it may hinge as much on their religious viewpoints as anything.

The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him.

José Saramago, Cain

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