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Rebel without a Clue: Saramago on Cain

The first thing that the typical reader will note when reading Jose Saramago’s final novel,
is the Nobel-winning author’s disdain for typographic conventions. Apparently, Saramago could not be bothered to capitalize anything aside from the first words of sentences. Likewise, quotation marks seem to have struck the Portuguese writer as overly bourgeois or something. And starting¬† a new paragraph every time a new speaker enters into dialogue probably offended Saramago’s environmental sensibilities as a waste of a paper. As a result, the reader is left with enormous slabs of text even in the midst of dialogue. What is quoted and what is narration? The reader needs to pay careful attention to know. Who is speaking this sentence? Again, attention is required. As a result, Saramago saves a few pages and forces readers to move at a much slower pace than the prose should require.

Actually, though, the first thing that a Christian reader is likely to notice is how quickly the author begins to paint the God of the Old Testament as capricious, cruel, bumbling, and anything but perfect. Most skeptics, re-writing biblical narratives in less-than-reverent ways, fasten on the many seams, bumps, and oddities of the text. “Where did Cain get his wife?” for example. Such points in the text invite an alternate view, but Saramago, perhaps bored with such points of entry, decides to invent and transform ideas. Therefore, on the book’s first page, we hear that “god,” having created adam and eve, “must have felt annoyed with himself,” as he had forgotten to give them the ability to speak and “there was no one else in the garden of eden to blame for this grave oversight.” What an odd insertion into the story.

Along the way through Cain’s story, we learn that an angel gropes Eve and then fetches her some fruit from the Garden after the Fall. (I’m sorry, but I just cannot follow Saramago’s capitalization.) We find Cain shacking up with Lilith, but apparently not the Lilith of the Talmud, who is already married to Noah, but not the Noah of the ark, who shows up later in the book.

Eventually, Cain spends many pages time-traveling–I kid you not–through many of the most important stories of the Bible through Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land. Apparently not a devotee of the time-travel genre of science fiction, Saramago painfully disrupts the space-time continuum. As the novel closes, Cain, who has stowed away on the ark and bedded down all four of the women passengers, proceeds to, one-by-one, throw the family of Noah overboard, effectively cutting off the re-propagation of the human race. Never mind that Cain has already enjoyed post-diluvian encounters with Abraham and Moses, characters who would not have existed after the termination of Noah’s line.

Even if we allow this bit of temporal fancy to go unreproved, the character of Cain has inconsistencies that seem far more serious. Almost immediately after leaving Lilith, it is Cain who keeps Abraham from murdering Isaac, the angel, apparently, having been detained. The cruelty of a god who would command his follower to sacrifice his own son is on trial here. The ineptitude of that god, or at least his angel, is also placed into evidence. The problem here is that rather than simply creating extrabiblical dialogue in which Isaac wonders why dad tried to kill him, Salamago utterly changes the story. In the course of that change, Cain goes from being a murderous character who blames his brother’s death on God to a life-saver who blames God for asking Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac to a murderous character, once again, who blames God so thoroughly that he determines to put an end to God’s plans altogether. The problem with this character shift is that nothing in the story really justifies it. Unlike Ishmael, who notably changes over the course of his service on the Pequod, unlike Arthur Dimmesdale whose character develops as Pearl grows up, unlike Hamlet, whose encounter with the ghost is among several events that transform him, Cain seems to be the same self-justifying killer at the beginning as at the end, having taken a sidetrip into life preservation in mid stream for no apparent reason.

In sum, Salamago’s character development and source adaptation really aren’t all that different from his non-standard typography. This author, for all his communist pretense, chafes at any imposition of authority or of tradition upon him. Like so many people, Salamago’s real gripe is that someone is making decisions and it isn’t him. Granted, he expresses that frustration more eloquently than do others, but he winds up simply sounding like a clever yet petulant teen in an octogenarian’s body.

Posted in Contemporary, Portuguese Literature.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Slaves to Logic Need Not Apply: Saramago’s The Stone Raft – A Noble Theme linked to this post on December 29, 2011

    […] made my way through Cain, it seemed fair to read another of Jose Saramago’s works before dismissing him as being […]

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