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CAIN by José Saramago


by José Saramago translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Pub Date: Oct. 4th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-41989-3
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why would a dedicated communist and atheist turn to the Bible as the theme for his final novel? Because the Bible is literature, and literature in a way that the best writers have long recognized—and the late Saramago (Small Memories, 2011, etc.) is one of the best.

Indeed: The best modern (if not modernist) writers—Mann, Kafka, Bellow, the list goes on—have always made fruitful use of the Bible, and particularly in subversive readings of it that match the collapse of faith in Western civilization’s post-Nietzschean twilight. In the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner (and communist and atheist) Saramago’s case, the story opens as it does in the Bible: with Genesis, that is, in which God is an impatient, violent and impulsive chap who isn’t quite sure why the humans he created have turned out so bad, but is swift to punish them savagely for living up to their natures. (Talk about setting someone up for failure.) Adam and Eve are tossed from the Garden of Eden, finding their way to a cave, and there they beget Cain and Abel. Writes Saramago, lowercasing his nouns, “Let us begin by clearing up certain malicious doubts about adam’s ability to make a child when he was one hundred and thirty years old.” Adam pulled it off, though, his offspring introducing murder to the list of human sins. Our eponymous Cain wanders into exile, accompanied by a semi-magical donkey (the Roman writer Apuleius seems to have stolen into the biblical mix) and has adventures aplenty. He’s a ticked-off fellow too: Saramago tells us that he was a fratricide precisely because he was not a successful deicide, and he might have enjoyed a fine career conquering such ancient cities as Sodom and Nineveh had not God always been interfering. Cain is also self-aware, if constantly unable to read the deity’s intentions; he offers himself up to God for the sacrifice God seems to be demanding, only to be made to live out his punishment for hundreds of years. Says a frustrated Cain, “I have learned one thing…That our god, the creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad."  

A pleasing, elegantly written allegory.