The OF Blog: José Saramago, Caín

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

José Saramago, Caín

Portuguese author José Saramago is no stranger to controversy.  In 1992, he left his native Portugal for the Spanish province of the Canary Islands as a symbolic protest of the Portuguese government blocking the nomination of his The Gospel According to Jesus Christ for a major European literary award, due mostly to the rather unflattering comments Saramago made about the founder of the Christian faith.  So it was with great curiosity that I recently placed an order for his latest book, Caín, bolstered by comments reported in an online UK publication:

A Catholic Church official in Portugal says that comments by Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago about the Bible are ''offensive.''

A row broke out in Portugal on Monday after a Nobel Prize-winning author denounced the Bible as a "handbook of bad morals".

Speaking at the launch of his new book "Cain", Jose Saramago, who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, said society would probably be better off without the Bible.

Saramago's new work of fiction, ''Cain,'' takes a critical and sometimes lighthearted look at the life of Adam and Eve's son. Saramago said at the book's launch late Sunday that the Bible is ''a catalog of cruelty and of what's worst in human nature.''
So how "offensive" was Caín?  It depends in large part upon one's perspectives on the Bible, in this case the Old Testament.  Familiarity with his earlier book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, certainly helps, as there are certain parallels drawn between motives and causalities in the two novels.  But unlike his earlier book, Caín is a much more flawed novel.

The story begins in the beginning.  In his typical non-traditional prose style, Saramago sets the tone for the fractious relationship between humans and God (the translation is mine and all errors are mine):

When the Lord, also known as God, realized that Adam and Eve, perfect in all that could be shown by sight, did not utter a word  nor did they emit a simple sound, primary [creatures] that they were, he had no other recourse than to be irritated with himself, since there was nobody else in the Garden of Eden who was responsible for the serious fault... In a fit of anger, surprising in one who would be able to solve it with another rapid fiat, he ran to where the pair were and, one then the other, without contemplation, without beating around the bush, he placed language inside them. (p. 11)
God is shown here as being willful and capricious at best, self-centered and prone to anger at the worst.  In placing his beginning at this beginning, it is clear that Saramago is taking a much more panoramic view of the Biblical stories of creation and destruction.  This is especially evident when the story shifts to that of Cain and Abel themselves.

Saramago does not spend much time on this account.  He notes how each brother lifts up his labor's produce, grains for Cain and lamb for Abel, to God in offering.  Abel's votive smoke rises straight up, a sign of divine approval, while Cain's is scattered almost immediately.  But instead of focusing on Cain's jealous anger, Saramago shifts the blame to the capricious God, who chides Cain without ever explaining himself.  In this telling of the first murder story, Saramago has Cain kill Abel as an act of defiance toward God, setting himself off as the accuser of God, a role that in Hebreo-Christian cosmology usually belongs to Satan.  After this point, Cain becomes less of an actual character, but more of an accusatory, Greek chorus-like figure who remains mostly in the background for the latter stories.

Several figures from either the Bible or Jewish legends enter in rapid succession.  Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam appears.  Although Saramago attempts to have her eroticism, a tribute to previous legends regarding her as the mother of demons, serve as another counterpoint to the rigid, overbearing regulations of God, he fails to develop adequately her character, leaving her, like Cain, as little more than a symbolic cipher.  The same happens with other Biblical characters from Abraham to Lot to Joshua to Job to Noah, in a strange placement of characters in a seeming passage of a few short years rather than the thousands recorded in the Genesis accounts.  Saramago starts with a brief character sketch, often unflattering to the character (Abraham being portrayed as being duplicitous while Lot's drunken incest with his daughters gets some speculative discourse), before positing just how unfair and tyrannical God is.

The highlight of this scathing denunciation is that of Cain and Abraham's visit to Sodom.  The tale of the fifty innocents has been turned around, noting that the infants and toddlers of that condemned city could not in any way be responsible for the sins of their fathers, but yet God's will always seems to punish the succeeding generations for the faults of their forebears.  It is a powerful scene and one of the few where Cain's presence serves to underscore the incomprehensibility of what is transpiring.

But unfortunately, for the most part Caín is a relatively weak story.  Unlike the earlier The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Cain in this story rarely has more than an inveterate hatred of God to reveal to the reader; there is little depth to his character.  By placing Cain in the Satan/Wandering Jew roles, Saramago creates a narrative remoteness that makes it difficult to grasp at times what is just so sickening about how the Old Testament portrays God.  Saramago is full of righteous indignation at what he sees is at the heart of the Bible, but unfortunately for him, his narrative mode fails to deliver the full force of what he views as being one of the foremost outrages in human history.

Caín therefore is a deeply failed novel.  It contains some moments of profundity similar to what appears in several of Saramago's writings, but it ultimately fails to connect with its readers the way that his other novels have done.  This novel reads more as a screed and less as a probing look into the internal inconsistencies of the Bible.  The choice of one of the more unsympathetic characters from the Genesis legends certainly did not help matters, as Cain's murder is blithely passed off, as Saramago has bigger, more divine, fish to fry.  Caín ultimately is little more than a sketch of a condemnatory tale, one that Saramago told to much greater effect in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Recommended only for those who have already read Saramago's more famous works and are completists at heart.


Fabio Fernandes said...

I agree. Comments and reviews in Brazil are pretty much the same - Saramago is just bitter in Caim; O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo is acid but an inteligent and witty critic not exactly to faith (at least that's how I see it) but to religion-as-institution.

Sadly, Caim doesn't have a tenth of the strength of that other novel, being a pale rant of a writer who just doesn't like religion and that's that (of course that's not the whole of it, but Saramago fails to make us see it in a different light, alas.)

Larry Nolen said...

It certainly was disappointing to see that Saramago had a subpar novel in him toward the end of his life. Apparently he has another short novel coming out by the end of the year. Hopefully, that one will be better than this one.

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